Book Review: Don’t Be Such A Scientist, by Randy Olson

Our memories are full of connections between places, events and experiences. It might sound odd, however, to say that the title of Dr. Randy Olson’s book, “Don’t Be Such A Scientist: Talking Substance In An Age Of Style”, conjures up thoughts of mud, nausea, Zoo magazine, turpentine and rocks exploding into clouds of shrapnel.

That’s a first for any book I’ve read.

I read DBSaS on a trip full of ups, downs and dustbowls...

Don’t Be Such A Scientist was a gripping book because it described part of me in every major chapter (well, at least the first two…). Considering Olson’s never met me, that seems to be quite a feat. As I kept reading, I realised the most impressive thing about the book is the precision with which Olson pinpoints the areas that divide scientists from non-scientists, and how that gets in the way of effective science communication. To prove I’m not always going to be such a scientist, let me regale you with anecdotal evidence and personal reflections which back up the four key themes of the book.

The first chapter was a kick in the intellectual balls: “Don’t be so Cerebral.” I place a high value on consideration, education and thinking in general. However, if you’re going to get lot of people’s attention, asking politely for a rational discussion just ain’t gonna cut it. A big feature on my recent Cape trip was the soundtrack to our drive; it introduced me to a comedian called Rodney Rude. Rodney admits that he aims for the lowest common denominator of comedy, and in my opinion, blunders well underneath it. That’s not to say smart people can’t find him funny, though. My road-trip mates were a switched on bunch of guys, and while it’s not what I usually listen to, I found myself cracking up at some parts. Rodney’s the comedy equivalent of a lad’s magazine: tits, cocks and swearing.

Speaking of magazines, guess what was the most common reading material on the trip? That’s right: lad’s mags. As Olson explains, the broadest market available is sex, followed by humour. Lad’s mags go for these, without worrying about smaller markets like sincerity and intellectualism. Bored in the back seat, I flicked through a Zoo mag, and lo and behold, I was intellectually stimulated titillated (I’m not sure if I’ve ever used that word in such an appropriate sentence). Lesson learned. No matter who makes up the target market, there’s a form of communication that will interest them. The challenge lies in making that communication have substance, whatever the style.

The next personal revelation came in an exploding cloud of turpentine. We’d pulled up at an awesome little pub called The Lion’s Den near the Daintree Rainforest and were pitching our camp under some light afternoon drizzle.

A (bad) photo stitch of our Lion's Den camp... fire in full swing!

After we’d set up the huge tarp, work commenced on making a fire. A little voice in my mind shouted at me: “WHY?” I ran through the possible reasons: warmth… nope. We were all comfortable in shorts and t-shirts. Cooking? Nope, we were setting up our butane stove. Light? Nope, we had torches and lamps. Morale? There was a pub 100m away! So, I posed the question to the guys setting up the fire. The response?

“It’s a camp. We’re making a campfire.”

The literal minded brain between my ears didn’t see any benefit to making a fire, especially one where the wood was so wet it took two litres of turps to finally ignite. My inner environmentalist could see, in comic-style floating writing, a hundred or so kilos of carbon dioxide billowing up into the atmosphere to endanger our collective future. I mulled over the worth of the blaze long after we’d started drinking at the pub, fire extinguished and forgotten. I was taking such a literal approach that it put me in a bad mood until I finally won a game of pool. Score 2, Randy Olson.

I was starting to realise how much I have to learn, or learn to consider differently, if I’m going to become a good science communicator, and I was only halfway into the book!

Next, let me tell you a story I told to a stranger in a Cairns pub after he’d asked what the Old Telegraph Track was like. It’s a cool track, one of Australia’s very best 4WD tracks. Looking out the window, I was astonished at the abrupt changes in vegetation I was seeing. One minute we’d be in a paperbark forest, then, in the space of 100m, it would give way to grasstrees. So it went, through a jigsaw of vegetation types: swamps, low scrubland, burned-out eucalyptus and termite-ridden grasses. The soil changed from a dramatic red to almost pure white clay and back in the time it took for a punk band to play their three chords. I read the Cape York info book we had, and it turns out that the Cape acts like a giant sponge, with the water table very close to the surface. The combination of water table level and soil type determine the vegetation, which is very diverse. How cool’s that?

Look! Green trees! Red soil! AWESOME!

Phew. Did I just lose some readers? That was a crap story. Interesting factoids, maybe, but when I related them to someone in Cairns, I was able to actually watch their eyes glaze over. Yet, when I talked about our epic misadventure at Bathurst, I had anything from polite interest to rapt attention. That story includes swamps, dustbowls, grasslands and rainforests in a national park. More importantly, it has tension, villains, a quest and the human element. In its third major chapter, Don’t Be Such A Scientist hammers home the point: “Don’t Be Such a Poor Storyteller.” Olson explains how communication can use either the ‘arouse and fulfil’ model, with a hook followed by content, or tell a story. Launching into a description of vegetation at Cape York does neither. The look of boredom and regret on the face of the random stranger in a Cairns pub spoke volumes. Ding! Score 3…

The last leg of our journey into the wisdom of Don’t Be Such a Scientist is a rocky one. We’d just scrambled up to the top of Pompeii Cave at Chillagoe. The view was stunning. For me, there was another level of appreciation: this old plug of volcanic rock had, millions of years ago, been underwater. The inside of the cave, the ex-magma chamber, was filled with fossilised corals, which looked exactly like the amazing formations visible in the oceans today (with the addition of cobwebs). It’s mind blowing.

Click to take a quick break and check out the 360 degree view over Chillagoe...

I was ready to climb back down when the first couple of rocks were hurled off the top of the peak. Soon, increasingly large rocks were flying down onto the rocks and trees below, exploding into clouds of dust and shrapnel. I’d already scrambled halfway down the side of the peak, and stood patiently for a while as the bombardment continued. I wasn’t interested in throwing rocks, and was keen to climb down and keep exploring. So, when a face appeared over the side of the rock face and asked me to get out of the way so they could push a half-metre boulder onto where I was standing, I bristled and refused to move. The n-word was said over and over… “No! That rock’s probably been there for thousands of years, who are you to push it off?” It deadened the mood a bit and we climbed down with a lot less of the camaraderie we’d had up to that point (to top it off, the rock I’d saved didn’t even thank me).

I’d ignored the advice in the fourth main chapter of Don’t Be Such a Scientist: “Don’t Be So Unlikeable.” Science is, by its nature, negative, and much of the environmental movement is seen as stopping or limiting things. It isn’t easy to see that from inside; to me, science is about exploring and finding out new things, which is very positive, and environmenalism is about protecting and enhancing, which are also virtues in my eyes. However, in a fitting analogy, scientists are described as the designated drivers of reality: because of our mindset and training, we’re more likely to look at something and pick flaws in it than just go with the flow and let crazy stuff happen.

It might sound a little hypocritical to tell scientists to be less negative in a book whose four key chapters start with ‘don’t’, but that’s because it’s a book written for scientists. We’re used to it. Within science, criticism is encouraged and welcomed. So, while I saw myself and my actions in what Olson described (and prescribed against), I didn’t take it personally. What Don’t Be Such a Scientist taught me most was how other people might see what I, and scientists in general, do. If I want to communicate broadly, that perspective is imperative. I’m not going to change how I think – expand it, perhaps – but how I interact with people professionally is a different matter.

On a more formal note, I found the book to be very readable, though the scientist in me had to sit back and be patient through some of the lengthier digressions about Hollywood. The core of the book is about what not to do, which is a little different to what I’d expected, as the market seems to have an abundance of how-to type guides. That’s fine. Science and communication are so broad that it’s easier to get a reasonable idea of what may or may not work, then run around and try out all kinds of ideas, than to follow a prescriptive guide.

While I appreciate this approach, it did mean that the message got a little muddled in parts. Digressions about people not ‘getting’ Olson’s work became a tiresome – there will always be critics, and I found that Olson’s generalised rebuttals to generalised criticisms fell flat as I haven’t had the chance to see Olson’s film work, or the relevant critiques, to judge for myself.

Overall, Don’t Be Such A Scientist is a short read, but I know that I’ll be mulling over the advice for a long time to come. That, in my mind, makes it well worth the purchase price and a strong recommendation for any scientist out there who’s thinking of having a go at communicating their work. Just don’t be surprised if I flinch a little when you mention the title, because just after I picked up the book for the first time, our car drove into a swamp and got stuck… you know the story.

Categories: Science, Thoughts | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

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