Don't Be Such A Scientist

By Michael Edmonds 21/07/2011 2


“Don’t be Such a Scientist – Talking Substance in an Age of Style” is a book written by Randy Olsen, a former tenured professor of marine biology and now a film maker. It provides a unique point of view regarding science communication, and takes a no prisoners approach in its critique of science communication.

Over the past week, I’ve had the opportunity to reread Randy’s book and some of his comments, while disconcerting, do suggest the need for some serious rethinking of some commonly held views around science communication.

Scientists function in a niche that puts logical and analysis ahead of everything else. Thus, when we want to convince others of our position in a debate, we tend to focus on presenting a logical argument to an audience. While this is may work for an audience of scientists, it is a different story with the general public. For such wider audiences, Randy points out that appealing to the heart and even the gut, may be much more persuasive.

In a fast moving world full of distractions, it can be difficult to gain an audience’s attention. Randy provides some suggestions for doing this. One is the Arouse and Fulfill approach, whereby one engages the audience with something creative/clever/novel and follows it up with the message you are trying to get across.

Another approach is Storytelling. Throughout history our most effective science communicators (Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Stephen Jay Gould) have been able to weave fascinating stories that incorporate science. This is a skill all scientists would benefit from developing.

Randy points out that while most people respond best to positivity and affirmation, much of science focuses on negativity and negation. When a scientist develops a hypothesis, he/she and other scientists will critique it vigorously to see if it stands up to scrutiny. In scientific circles having a sharp critical eye is respected – in wider society such an approach is more likely to alienate and infuriate people.

Randy also points to his own observations from the  world of acting, as well as to psychological research, which show that one of the most important factors in persuading people is likeability. Even the perception of arrogance, condescension or aggressiveness can cause an audience to turn away from the message. He provides an example from a climate change debate where one speaker unthinkingly suggested that an issue was too complex for the audience to understand which resulted in an audible response from the audience away from the speaker’s position.

Accuracy is important in science, however, in science communication an overemphasis on accuracy can result in a more tedious story. A good science communicator needs to weigh up the need for accuracy with the need not to bore an audience.

“Don’t be Such a Scientist” is a thought provoking but not necessarily a comfortable read. But it is one I would recommend to all scientists interested in science communication. You may not agree with everything Randy says but it will certainly make you think more carefully about science communication.


2 Responses to “Don't Be Such A Scientist”

  • Note the following comment from the article:
    “Scientists function in a niche that puts logical and analysis ahead of everything else. Thus, when we want to convince others of our position in a debate, we tend to focus on presenting a logical argument to an audience. While this is may work for an audience of scientists, it is a different story with the general public. For such wider audiences, Randy points out that appealing to the heart and even the gut, may be much more persuasive.”

    I must really object here. This is pure and simple elitism – the exact same elitism that somehow permits perfectly level headed and logical scientists and people of intelligence to indulge their fantasies about how Homeopathy could not possibly work because… (choose your favourite fallacy here):
    1. The “laws” of physics and chemistry would never “permit” it.
    2. It cannot be anything more than “placebo” effect.
    3. It’s just water
    4. It’s quackery and charlatanism.

    I suggest, ladies and gentlemen, quite strongly that the same elitism which states that perhaps one should appeal to the gut of the “hoi polloi” with the snide and implicit assumption that they cannot understand logical and/or scientific arguments, is also the same elitism which easily asserts any of the anti-Homeoapthic fallacies inherent in the 4 typical fallacies noted above.

    Irrespective of Homeopathy, I aim here to warn those who take easy credence to such rationalizations as have appeared in the above article, that it is in fact a dangerous anti-intellectual, anti-scientific cult way of thinking, or, more correctly,non-thinking which pervades our media, communications and society and extends all the way into politics. This cult is the cult of “scientism”, for want of a better word, and it confers on its devotees an arrogance and overweening sense of superiority based on mental foundations of quicksand. Agree with Homeopathy or disagree strongly against it, fine, but please do not succumb so easily to the siren song of scientism without being aware of the rocks upon which your mental ship may founder in listening to its song!

  • ScepticBane,

    “I must really object here. This is pure and simple elitism”

    You have objected but you haven’t indicate what part of the following statement you object to:
    “Scientists function in a niche that puts logical and analysis ahead of everything else. Thus, when we want to convince others of our position in a debate, we tend to focus on presenting a logical argument to an audience. While this is may work for an audience of scientists, it is a different story with the general public. For such wider audiences, Randy points out that appealing to the heart and even the gut, may be much more persuasive.”

    As a whole, human beings (including most scientists) in everyday life are inclined to respond to emotive appeals (the whole advertising industry is built around). Science focused on logic and rational analysis. Therefore in communicating science we need to consider how to balance the persuasive effects of emotive appeals while trying to communicate a subject focused on logic and analysis.

    The accusation of “elitism” is purely your warped interpretation of what I wrote. As usual you twist anything that you could conceivably perceive as possibly being used as an argument against homeopathy and launch emotive attacks against it.

    Calling science based opposition to homeopathy as “scientism” is an old ploy by homeopathy supporters. The inability of science to accept others unsupported fantasies is not “scientism”.