NS Book Review: DON’T BE SUCH A SCIENTIST: TALKING SUBSTANCE IN AN AGE OF STYLE

DON’T BE SUCH A SCIENTIST:  TALKING SUBSTANCE IN AN AGE OF STYLE

- A Nuclear Street Book Review by Randy Brich -

In graduate school way back in 1977 my Molecular and Microbial Genetics professor possessed a speaking talent that transcended academia.  His lectures seized our collective minds as he recounted realtime recombinant DNA research direct from the pages of Nature, Science and other periodicals.  His every word formed a sentence, every sentence a paragraph and every paragraph an abstract.  How he condensed so much information into so few words kept us spellbound while he described the most amazing truths ever uncovered in the world of biology.  He had a gift for taking a complex subject and not only making it understandable, but he could also make it captivating.  

Randy Olson also possesses that gift and he unwraps it and shares it with the world in his new book, “DON’T BE SUCH A SCIENTIST:  TALKING SUBSTANCE IN THE AGE OF STYLE.”  After relating his exciting research experiences on the Great Barrier Reef that made him a Marine Biologist and his tenured Harvard professorship that set him up for life, Olson confesses that he wanted more.  He wanted to make films. 

At age 38 he closed the door on the stuffy scientific world and stepped into the world of make-believe known as Hollywood.  He tells a humorous anecdote which occurred while partying (known as networking in Hollywood) and profoundly revealed the inherent communication differences between scientists and regular people.  

Obsessed with details, scientists assume “the facts speak for themselves” and that by providing the facts they’ve done their job and the rest of society should just fall in line.  Conversely, non-scientists (i.e., the rest of humanity) rely on subtle clues, invisible to most scientists who ponder details, to interpret messages.  In other words, scientists hear with their head while everyone else listens with their heart, their gut or their groin. 

The expression, “I have a gut feeling” really does describe the way most people think about a variety of subjects.  Peoples’ perceptions of esoteric subjects, which involve a complex suite of messy scientific details including a substantial amount of uncertainty, are influenced by their gut reaction. The general public trusts their instincts and their instincts are prejudiced by emotion.

Painful examples extracted from Olson’s first acting lessons graphically portray the differences in communication styles between scientists (i.e., an ageing 38 year old Olson) and everyone else (i.e., his fellow 20-something acting students).  Captivating, concise and clear, Olson hammers home the point he learned during those challenging and sometimes humiliating experiences – style trumps substance.

As a scientist fixated on substance, Olson couldn’t grasp the importance of style until his acting teacher finally succeeded in drilling it home.  Now, he’s a born again believer. 

Olson confidently argues that the visual medium vastly overwhelms the written forms of communication in reaching millions of people.  The new social media, especially YouTube, comprise the quickest and slickest way to connect with most people in today’s world.  Regarding science communicators, Olson presciently observes that if you’re not a filmmaker already, you will be soon.

Every communication, from 30-second TV commercials to full length movies, employ similar tactics – arouse and fulfill.  Grab the audience’s attention and then fulfill their expectations with the facts.   

Olson notes that in situations where there already exists an aroused audience, as in the case of a controversial facility, they are ready to be taken to the fulfillment stage.

“The attackers of science are a potential communication opportunity.  They are a source of tension and conflict.  They can actually be used to tell a more interesting story, one that can grab the interest of a much wider audience.”

The science communicator needs only to fulfill the audience’s expectations by providing them with something substantial, interesting and easily digestible.  That, according to Olson, is one of the keys to communication.

Developers of controversial facilities, whether nuclear power plants, uranium recovery facilities or other industrial enterprises, would benefit from reading DON’T BE SUCH A SCIENTIST.  The public has a right to know about these facilities and scientists have a duty to communicate the facts about them in a language and manner that resonates with the public.  If scientists don’t do the communication, others, who perhaps have an agenda, will.   

Randy Olson
DON’T BE SUCH A SCIENTIST:  TALKING SUBSTANCE IN AN AGE OF STYLE, 206 pp. Island Press, Paperback, 2009
978-1-59726-563-8 

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About Randy Brich
Randy graduated from South Dakota State University in 1978 with a M.S. in Biology.  Following graduation he switched gears and began a lifelong study of ionizing radiation and its beneficial applications to humanity.  During the course of his study he worked as a staff Health Physicist with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission specializing in the licensing and inspection of uranium recovery facilities.  He transferred to the Department of Energy where he worked as a Health Physicist at the Randy BrichNevada Operations Office and later to the Richland Operations Office specializing in environmental monitoring, dose reconstruction, worker protection, waste cleanup and systems biology.

Since then he has retired from the federal government and, after taking time out to build an energy efficient house near the Missouri River, has formed Diamond B Communications LLC.  Diamond B Communications LLC uses a multimedia approach to explain complex energy resource issues to technical and non-technical audiences.  He also guides for Dakota Bike Tours, the Relaxed Adventure Company, offering tours of the Badlands National Park, the Black Hills and Devils Tower National Monument.

If you have questions, comments, or know of a book that you think Randy should review E-mail Randy Brich>> randy@nuclearstreet.com

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