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Book Review: Don’t Be Such A Scientist

don't be such a scientistI have a lot of scientist friends. Don’t Be Such A Scientist: Talking Substance In An Age of Style is something that they all need to read. I will be mailing out copies and filling Christmas stockings with Randy Olson’s book until they all start speaking some language that resembles the way that most people communicate.

For instance, I was once chastised for saying “That took a ton of time.”

“Time has no weight,” was the response. “Be more precise.”

Randy Olson, author of the book, would have sympathized with my plight, even as he might have agreed with my stuffy pal.

Olson was a tenured Marine Biologist. For reasons that I’m not going to spoil–Olson is a great storyteller and most of the lessons of this book, including the ones about him leaving his University, are stories–he leaves his job and becomes a documentary filmmaker. He does this so that he can better understand why scientists with persuasive data and impressive credentials have trouble making their case with the non-scientific community.

Why can’t they get people to care about saving the oceans/whales/rain forests?

It’s because they fall into what Olson describes as “Hurl facts at the audience mode.” Throw up a Powerpoint. Drone on and on and assume the facts speak for themselves.

That mode is the opposite of what he learns in an acting class, which is where the book begins.

After being thoroughly humiliated by his teacher (more than once), he begins to see the benefits of her teaching method. The further he gets into his film studies, the more he learns about how we communicate, and how we transfer and assimilate information.

People get divided into four categories here. Those who:

  • Live from the head
  • Live from the heart
  • Live from the gut
  • Live from that sultry region I call Downtown

Scientists live almost exclusively in the head, the province of cold rationality, formulas, and statistics.

The premise is that they will always be in the minority. The problem is that the majority of the people the head-dwellers are trying to reach spend relatively little time there, if any at all.

I loved the stories, I loved this glimpse at how he made his documentaries, and at the creative process. I love stories about stuff academics and also felt concern at the idea that there might be a million things that can’t be communicated to me, either because I live too much from the heart or gut, and only someone who lives in their head has the answers that would benefit me.

Rating: 5 beakers full of acid.

If you liked this, I think you’ll get a kick out of Bill Bryon’s A Short History of Nearly Everything which I reviewed on the other side of that link.


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  • Drew Jacob February 14, 2011, 6:22 pm

    Thank you for reviewing this book – I hadn’t heard of it but it is now on my list. (At least partly to hone my own communication skills, since I fall victim to this myself…)