I’ve just finished Randy Olson’s “Don’t be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an age of style” (after loving his article in New Scientist, “Top five tips for communicating science “). Olson is a marine biologist turned filmmaker, so knows the world of science from the inside, and from the outside perspective.
This book is 75% solid gold – absolutely essential perspective for scientists who want to communicate outside of their specialism. But it is also 25% misleading and elitistic simplification. At heart, Randy Olson’s message as a populariser ends up pandering to a mistaken belief in scientific exceptionalism – that what scientists do and who scientists are is so beyond the ken of the rest of the population that it cannot be conveyed to them, that we have to use a pound of silly songs and fart jokes to make the public to swallow an ounce of important information. Sorry, Randy, but when you underestimate the public taste you end up demeaning it.
Part of the 75% I loved is Olson’s perspective on the value of acting and improv classes for science communicators. This something close to my heart, after I had my own mind-blowing experience of improv training. An essential – some would say the essential – of improv is to avoid negating your fellow improvisers suggestions. Whatever happens, improvisers are taught to accept and build – using a “yes and” mindset instead of a “no but” one. This lends itself to humour and creativity. Science, on the other hand, tends to downplay “yes and” at the favour of “no but”, lending itself to rigour and certainty, at the risk of cynicism and myopia. Olson puts this particularly well in the following passage:
The entire profession of science has at its core a single word, and that word is “no”. Science is a process not of affirming ideas but of attempting to falsify ideas in the search for truth. This is what a hypothesis is – an idea that can be tested and possibly falsified and rejected.
When you give a scientist a paper, he or she reads it with the assumption that the writer is guilty of being wrong until proven innocent. The writers proves his or her innocence by either presenting data or citing sources. With each statement made in the paper, the scientist reading it says “I’m not sure I believe this.” As the author presents graphs and tables of data and cites sources, the good critical scientist attempts to falsify what is being said.
Eventually, after the scientist has examined the data, looked up the cited sources and found that in fact, despite considerable effort, the hypothesis presented cannot be falsfied – only then does the scientist finally start to relax and a bit and say, “Well, okay, I think I can probably live with this.”
Tough buisness. It really is. As I waded through my first decade of rejection in Hollywood as a filmmaker, people would ask me whether I found the rejection hurtful or depressing. And I would respond, “Are you shitting me? Do you have any idea what it’s like to deal with the rejection of scientists? Hollywood folks reject things on the basis of the idea that ‘it just didn’t grab me,’ and they can’t even articulate the reason for their decision. When scientists reject you they hit you with a stack of data and sources that are the basis for it. That’s the sort of specific, substantive rejection that truly hurts (p128-129)
Link to page for Randy Olson’s “Don’t be such a scientist”
I wrote about improv for Prospect magazine, here