Near the start of my PhD I began hearing a lot of buzz around a book by a guy called Randy Olson called Don’t Be Such a Scientist. First off, what a great title! It grabbed me immediately. I find myself saying that exact phrase in my head (sometimes to others, and sometimes to myself!). Time to investigate, then.
Second thing – this guy, who I had never heard of before, has had a pretty unique career. Starting off in academia and gaining a professorship in marine biology, he gradually transferred to Hollywood where he threw himself way out of his comfort zone, took acting classes and ended up making some rather successful films. Surprisingly, I hadn’t actually heard of any of them before reading this book, but now I’ll be sure to check them out.
Somehow the book sat on my ‘to read’ list for a long time. Finally, now I’m wrapping up my PhD work and my brain is a little less frazzled, I’m doing some more reading for pleasure. So I picked up a copy of Don’t Be Such a Scientist from my university library.
What’s it all about?
It’s not immediately obvious what it’s about, actually. Its subtitle, ‘talking substance in an age of style’, drops some clues, but for reasons I’ll come on to I think it’s rather misleading. The back of my edition lacks a blurb – it has a short author biography and some rave-review quotations from various eminent people.
I see the book as a dose of perspective for those who have been closeted in their own intellectual community for so long they believe that’s all there is. It argues that, for scientists to successfully communicate with other intellectual communities, they must learn to speak their languages, and, in short, not be such scientists.
He expresses his position particularly vividly in relation to scientists’ default mode of suspicion and criticism:
You meet scientists who have lost control of this negating approach and seem to sit and stew in their overly critical, festering juices of negativity, which can reduce down to a thick, gooey paste of cynicism.
As you can see, Olson also makes an effort to be provocative, because that sets up tension, and maintains interest, and that’s a crucial part of good communications.
Tensions, tensions everywhere
Talking of tensions, the book repeatedly bumps into the tension between substance and style. Olson argues it’s very difficult to have both. An engaging film generally has to be lighter on information. For this reason, film is more of an engagement tool and a motivational medium than one that’s directly educational. Real learning requires repetition, detail and focus, none of which are particularly entertaining. Scientists generally find it difficult to reduce information content. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard scientists say that they are struggling to condense a talk down to the required time, or to keep a publication below a page limit. A key lesson from the book, then, is to think carefully about what the audience really needs to know, and impose some self-discipline.
This is why I find the subtitle of the book misleading. It claims to be about substance, but really it’s all about the style. I found it never really touched on ways to craft writing or film in such a way to keep maximise actual useful information while retaining the audience.
Making headway in the attention economy
I had one other major problem with the book. If I were to take up all its suggestions it would feel to me a little like admitting defeat. Olson talks about how style of communication completely defines our age because humans are so overloaded with stimuli. There are so many media sources clamouring for attention. He describes an ‘attention economy’ which works on these terms. In the attention economy we must scrabble to glean a few moments of attention and we can’t waste that by imparting information. We can only afford to give off a general impression and hope it sticks.
It left me wondering: when Olson talks about science communication, what is he communicating? His goal is to catch the person’s attention for a moment and implant a seed in their brain that makes them want to know more. That’s the initial ‘hump’ to get over with communication – arousing interest.
This is excellent practical advice, but it made me a little sad. Personally I think the ‘attention economy’ is troubling. I feel like some communications barely communicate anything at all and are just stimuli devoid of meaning. I feel like the search for attention amidst fading attention spans favours a simplistic approach which doesn’t reflect the nuances of the real world. We see this every time a politician says…well…anything. I do my best not to fall into the trap of the attention economy, but feel it every day. Often at work I find it difficult to concentrate because the Internet is luring me in: Twitter, Facebook, superficial arguments on online fora, YouTube videos, banal rolling news…for me, it’s a bad thing which encourages lazy thinking. In that sense, I think non-scientists would benefit from a little scientific thinking. Or at least some scepticism when it comes to the claims of those in powerful positions in our society. But making the public think like scientists is a harder task than making scientists think like the public.
It’s not a manual, it’s a demonstration
In the end, that’s what the book is about. It makes a case for scientists learning how other people think. It does so in a light way focusing on a simple message delivered in an engaging style. One might be able to make the case by reviewing the sociological literature on sub-cultures with different psychologies and linguistics, and impeded communications between isolated intellectual communities. Olson does it rather more succinctly with wit, storytelling and occasional overgeneralisation.
I don’t know anything about communications strategy and I’m sure there are all sorts opaque, technical ways to learn about it. Olson sees this and uses this book as a real-life example of communicating technical ideas in an engaging and motivational way. Writing this blog post has helped me understand this. In short, I didn’t realise how much I was learning.