Don't Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style [NOOK Book]


After nearly a decade on the defensive, the world of science is about to be restored to its rightful place. But is the American public really ready for science? And is the world of science ready for the American public? Scientists wear ragged clothes, forget to comb their hair, and speak in a language that even they don't understand. Or so people think. Most scientists don't care how they are perceived, but in our media-dominated age, style ...
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Don't Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style

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After nearly a decade on the defensive, the world of science is about to be restored to its rightful place. But is the American public really ready for science? And is the world of science ready for the American public? Scientists wear ragged clothes, forget to comb their hair, and speak in a language that even they don't understand. Or so people think. Most scientists don't care how they are perceived, but in our media-dominated age, style points count.

Enter Randy Olson. Fifteen years ago, Olson bid farewell to the science world and shipped off to Hollywood ready to change the world. With films like Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus (Tribeca '06, Showtime) and Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy (Outfest '08), he has tried to bridge the cultural divide that has too often left science on the outside looking in.

Now, in his first book, Olson, with a Harvard Ph.D. and formerly a tenured professor of marine biology at the University of New Hampshire, recounts the lessons from his own hilarious-and at times humiliating-evolution from science professor to Hollywood filmmaker. In Don't Be Such a Scientist, he shares the secrets of talking substance in an age of style. The key, he argues, is to stay true to the facts while tapping into something more primordial, more irrational, and ultimately more human.

In a book enlivened by a profane acting teacher who made Olson realize that "nobody wants to watch you think," he offers up serious insights and poignant stories. You'll laugh, you may cry, and as a communicator you'll certainly learn the importance of not only knowing how to fulfill, but also how to arouse.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In 1997, marine biologist Olson recognized that scientists needed better communications skills to address a growing backlash against "rational data-based science." Inspired by the "power of video," Olson gave up a tenured professorship and went to Hollywood to reach a broader audience through filmmaking. The crucial lesson he learned was how to tell a good story, a largely absent concern for scientists, who focus on accuracy rather than audience engagement. It was a lesson Olson learned the hard way, after his intelligent design documentary, Flock of Dodos, flopped for lack of a lively story line. By "starting with a quirky little tidbit" about his mother and the intelligent design lawyer she lives next to, Olson found the hook he was missing. Olson values motivation over education, looking to Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth ("the most important and best-made piece of environmental media in history") for a hugely successful example of his principles in action. As if to prove all he's learned, Olson packs this highly entertaining book with more good stories than good advice, spurring readers to rethink their personal communication styles rather than ape Olson's example.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
author of Microcosm and the award-winning science blog The Loom - Carl Zimmer
"Don't Be Such a Scientist is a stinging critique, yet it's also a funny, heart-felt account of one scientist's efforts to make non-scientists care about the natural world."
The Wildlife Professional

"If you are a wildlife professional who has ever been faced with hunters not believing your data and questioning your management recommendations, or have had to deal with angry property-rights advocates questioning not only your results but your integrity, then Don’t Be Such a Scientist should be on your professional reading list."
Wildlife Professional
"If you are a wildlife professional who has ever been faced with hunters not believing your data and questioning your management recommendations, or have had to deal with angry property-rights advocates questioning not only your results but your integrity, then Don't Be Such a Scientist should be on your professional reading list."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781597267960
  • Publisher: Island Press
  • Publication date: 5/17/2010
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 216
  • Sales rank: 357,338
  • File size: 718 KB

Meet the Author

Randy Olson earned his Ph.D. at Harvard University and became a professor of marine biology before moving to Hollywood for his second career as a filmmaker. Since obtaining an M.F.A. from the University of Southern California School of Cinema, he has written and directed the critically acclaimed films Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus (Tribeca, ‘06, Showtime) and Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy (Outfest, ’08), and co-founded The Shifting Baselines Ocean Media Project, a partnership between scientists and Hollywood to communicate the crisis facing our oceans.
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Read an Excerpt

Don't Be Such A Scientist

Talking Substance in an Age of Style

By Randy Olson


Copyright © 2009 Randy Olson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-59726-563-8


Don't Be So Cerebral

In 2000 Premiere magazine ran an article about the making of the movie The Perfect Storm. The actor Mark "Marky Mark" Wahlberg talked about filming scenes off the coast of Massachusetts and told of glancing over his shoulder and spotting gray whales passing nearby. Even though it had been six years since I had resigned from my professorship, the scientist's eye never fades, and I couldn't help but be tripped up by that detail.I wrote a letter to the editor of the magazine explaining that those whales were either something other than gray whales (long since extinct in the Atlantic Ocean) or stunt doubles flown in from the Pacific Ocean. They published it. A couple of months later I ended up at a Hollywood party, spotted the issue of Premiere with my letter, proudly said to the group, "Hey, everybody, listen to this," and then proceeded to read my letter to the editor aloud. When I finished I looked up, beaming, but instead of applause I saw expressions of "Huh?" My best friend from film school, Jason Ensler, finally broke the tension by saying, "You know, the thing about Randy is, half the time he's like the coolest guy any of us know in all of Hollywood. But the other half of the time ... he's a total dork."

So we begin with the crazy acting teacher and some of the simple concepts she pounded into our heads night after night. There was one that emerged supreme seven years later, when I returned to working with academics. It is so simple and yet so powerful that I choose to start this first chapter with it. Most of what I have to say descends from this notion.

Here it is ...

The Four Organs Theory of Connecting with the Mass Audience

When it comes to connecting with the entire audience, you have four bodily organs that are important: your head, your heart, your gut, and your sex organs. The object is to move the process down out of your head, into your heart with sincerity, into your gut with humor, and, ideally, if you're sexy enough, into your lower organs with sex appeal.

That's it. Others have heard me mention this in talks and put their own spin on it—talking about the chakras and "mind body spirit" and other sorts of New Agey gobbledygook. Also, there's vast work in the field of psychology exploring these sorts of dynamics. Carl Jung talked about personality types, and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, developed during World War II, explores this vertical axis of powers in the body. But, for our purposes, let's keep it simple and free of psychobabble. If you've had lots of classes in psychology, you may find this annoyingly simplistic. If not, I hope you'll find it as useful as I have.

It's about the difference between having your driving force be your head and having it be your sex organs. There is a difference.

Let's begin by considering each of the four organs.

The head is the home for brainiacs. It is characterized (ideally) by large amounts of logic and analysis. When you're trying to reason your way out of something, that's all happening in your head. Things in the head tend to be more rational, more "thought out," and thus less contradictory. Academics live their lives in their heads, even if it results in sitting at their desks and staring at the wall all day, as I used to at times. "Think before you act" are the words they live by. When they ask, "Are you sure you've thought this through?" they are reflecting a sacrosanct hallmark of their entire way of life.

The heart is the home for the passionate ones. People driven by their hearts are very emotional, deeply connected with their feelings, prone to sentimentality, susceptible to melodrama, and crippled by love. Religion tends to pour out of the heart, and religious followers feel their beliefs in their hearts. Actors usually have a lot of heart. Sometimes annoyingly so. In an episode of Iconoclasts on Sundance Channel, you can see it when Renée Zellweger (heart-driven actress) and Christiane Amanpour (head-driven reporter) visit the World Trade Center memorial in New York City. Renée is overflowing with emotion, crying for the people who died, agonizing over the tortured fate of humanity, practically throwing herself to the pavement in empathetic agony, while Christiane offers up analytical, dry-eyed, rational commentary on how sad it is that humans do terrible things like this (which she's seen firsthand all around the world in her reporting). It's a perfect side-by-side comparison of head versus heart.

The gut is home to both humor and the deeper levels of instinct (having a gut feeling about something). We're getting a long way away from the head now, and, as a result, things are characterized by much less logic and rationality. Humor tends to come from the gut, producing "belly laughs," but also is extremely variable and often hard to understand. There's nothing worse than someone trying to explain why a joke is funny.

People driven by their gut are more impulsive, spontaneous, and, most important, prone to contradiction. Where the cerebral types say, "Think before you act," the gut- level types say, "Just do it!" When things reside in the gut, they haven't yet been processed analytically. For that reason, when people have a first gut instinct about something, they generally can't explain why they have the instinct, where it comes from, or how exactly it works. As a result, if you quiz them about it, you're going to find they are full of contradictions. You'll end up saying, "But wait, you just said X is the cause, and now you're saying Y is the cause." And they will respond with crossed eyes and a look that says, "I know! Can you believe I'm so confused?" And yet they are still totally certain they understand what's going on.

We heard a lot about the gut-versus-head divide during the 2004 presidential race between George W. Bush and John F. Kerry. Bush even proudly spoke of how he based much of his decision making at the gut level. He told author Bob Woodward, "I'm a gut player. I rely on my instincts." Not surprisingly, Bush's presidency was characterized by a great deal of contradiction.

At the bottom of our anatomical progression we have the naughty sex organs. As soon as you finished reading this sentence, you probably smiled for reasons you don't even begin to understand. All I have to say is "penis" and you're either physically smiling or internally smiling. Why is this? Well, let's ask Bill Clinton—remember him? He's the man who obliterated his entire historical legacy thanks to this region. Let's ask the countless men and women who, over the ages, have risked and destroyed everything in their lives out of sexual passion.

There is no logic to the sex organs. Look at those arrows in the gut in figure 1-2. Now picture them moved lower and spinning in circles. You're a million miles away from logic in this region. And yet the power is enormous, and the dynamic is universal.

Not universal, you think? Some people have no sex drive? That is, of course, impossible to test, but one thing worth taking a look at is the life of the novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand. She was one of the most prominent popular figures to suggest it is possible not to be driven by such irrational forces. She authored the massively best- selling Atlas Shrugged in the 1950s and founded her "objectivist" school of thought and way of life on the principle of suppressing one's irrational side. And guess how her life turned out. She eventually got eaten alive by her sex organs.

Seriously. One of the greatest books I've ever read was Barbara Branden's biography of her,The Passion of Ayn Rand. In a nutshell, Barbara and her husband, Nathaniel, became followers of Rand, went to work for her, and believed and lived every word of her teaching about living an objectivist life—not allowing oneself to be controlled by pointless, frivolous, irrational thoughts and feelings. Rand's objectivist school of thought in the 1950s grew to enormous popularity; its followers even included former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan. And then ...

Rand ended up secretly boinking Nathaniel for a couple of decades. When he dumped her, Rand turned vitriolic, and the public began to catch glimpses of the insanity she was living (proof that the story wasn't just Branden's fantasy). Total hypocrisy of the highest magnitude—telling the world to suppress its irrational side while viciously shoving the man who had scorned her out of her institute. According to Branden, Rand went to her grave still simmering with rage over it.

So don't even begin to think that the lower organs are not a universal driving force, for everyone from the local FedEx delivery guy to the president of MIT. And once you've processed that thought, you can appreciate the age-old adage "Sex sells." It's the truth, mate. If you are fortunate enough to get your communication down into that region, you can connect with almost every living human—even the most anti-intellectual NASCAR fan. Who doesn't like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie? They're sex-eeeee.

Too Heady: The Less Than One Campaign

Now, if we consider these organs, we start to see some fundamental differences in the members of the mass audience. The lower organs include everyone, but as we move upward, our audience narrows. There are people who pretty much respond only to sex and violence. Not much of a sense of humor, not much passion, and zero intellect. Once you move above the belt, you've lost them.

But you still have the attention of a lot of people through humor—most folks love humor. But then you move higher and lose that element. Well, with the heart you still have actors and the religious folks. But then you move up above that, into the head, and who do you have left? Just the academics. Which is okay, but the point is that you're communicating now with a very small audience. You've left most of the general public out of the story.

So this is the fundamental dynamic. And it began to resonate with me in 2001 as I drifted back from the Hollywood environment I had been immersed in since leaving academia in 1994. I started working with academics and science communicators in ocean conservation. And as I did, the words of that acting teacher began echoing back at me.

I learned of a large project called the Less Than One campaign. The idea was built around someone's revelation that less than 1 percent of America's coastal waters are protected by conservation laws. Someone thought, "If we can communicate this factoid to the general public, when people hear it they will think about how small 1 percent is and they'll be outraged."

Well. They should have called it the Less Than Outraged campaign, since that's what happened with the general public. The Less Than One campaign opened its Web site in July 2003. It had a number of ill-conceived media projects (I'll talk about one of them in chapter 4), and, to make its short story short, by July 2004 the site was gone and not a trace of the project could be found on the Internet.

Suffice it to say, the masses simply do not connect with "a piece of data" (i.e., a number). Could you imagine a presidential candidate making his campaign slogan "More than 60 percent!" with the explanation that, if you elect him, eventually more than 60 percent of the public will earn more than $30,000 a year? For some reason I just can't see the crowd at campaign headquarters shouting, "More than 60 percent! More than 60 percent!" Sounds like something from a Kurt Vonnegut novel.

No, in fact groups connect with simple things from the heart—"A new tomorrow," "We've only just begun," "Yes we can." You just don't see a lot of facts and figures in mass slogans, unless they've been crafted by eggheads.

By now you may be thinking, "What's this guy got against intellectuals? He's calling them brainiacs and eggheads." Well, I spent six wonderful years at Harvard University completing my doctorate, and I'll take the intellectuals any day. But still, it would be nice if they could just take a little bit of the edge off their more extreme characteristics. It's like asking football players not to wear their cleats in the house. You're not asking them not to be football players, only to use their specific skills in the right places.

Kicking Flowers: The Value of Not Thinking Things Through

I'm criticizing overly cerebral people here, yet we obviously know there is a value to working from the head most of the time. Educated people make great inventions, create important laws, run powerful financial institutions. Clearly it pays to think things through so that everything is logical, fair, and consistent. But what's not so obvious is the value of sometimes not thinking things through.

Spontaneity and intuition reside down in those lower organs. They are the opposite end of the spectrum from cerebral actions. And while they bring with them a high degree of risk (from not being well thought through, obviously), they also offer the potential for something else, something magical, something that is often too elusive even to capture in words. And because they are so potentially effective, they are the focus of the rest of this chapter.

I learned about the power of spontaneity the hard way—by getting yelled at in that acting class. I eventually got to see it up close and personal as I began to realize I was a lousy actor. And the reason for my being a lousy actor was that I was ... too cerebral. I thought too much.

Let me tell you specifically how I would get to see it. Night after night we would do acting exercises in which one person pretends to be at home and the other person comes home. On the edge of the stage was a fake wall with a door that the person coming home would enter. So, for example, I would be the guy at home, maybe working on balancing my checkbook, and my "wife" would come in after a long day of work. We would get into an argument over something, and then, right in the middle of the scene, I would accidentally do something that wasn't in the plan—like, let's say, knock over the vase of flowers on the table. The contents would spill all over the floor. I would look down. And then, being the highly cerebral former academic, I would start thinking.

I would think, "Wow, I just knocked over the flowers, that wasn't supposed to happen, we're supposed to be arguing over the wrecked car, how would this clumsy act I just did fit into my character's tendency to—"and then, blaaaaah, the teacher lady is up and screaming in my face: "Stop thinking! Do something! Nobody wants to watch you stand up here and think. You're like a statue. Do you want to watch a play full of statues? Act!"

Then a similar thing would happen with one of the younger, less cerebral guys. When he knocked over the vase, he would immediately kick it like a football and shout, "I hate flowers! "And the audience would burst out laughing and cheering, and the crazy acting teacher would scream at him, "Why did you do that?" and he would reply, "I don't know!" and she would scream with joy, because that was a spontaneous moment in which you could feel the magic.

And that's what I was so bad with. I would just think too much. The fact is, if she let me go long enough, I would eventually look at the vase and say to my "wife," "Your bad driving upsets me so much I end up doing things like knocking over vases of flowers." And the audience would snore. I would have provided a well-thought-out and reasonable response to the spilled flowers; it just would have lacked that spark of energy that the other, more spontaneous performance provided.

That's the deal with spontaneity. It gives a wonderful energy that audiences love. And, by the way, it has become the core and backbone of a major shift in the entertainment world over the past decade.

The Shift to Unscripted Entertainment

I finished that acting class in 1996. I never had any intention of becoming an actor (I did it to improve my directing skills), but all the other kids in class headed off to pursue acting careers.

By early 1999, though, they began showing up on my doorstep, depressed. In Hollywood, the month of February is generally known as "pilot season." That's when the networks cast the pilots they will shoot—whether half-hour sitcoms or hour-long dramas. For actors it's a frantic time in which they may have four or five auditions a day, causing them to drive wildly back and forth between Hollywood and Burbank. But suddenly in 1999 the number of auditions dropped significantly, and my aspiring actor friends felt the pinch.


Excerpted from Don't Be Such A Scientist by Randy Olson. Copyright © 2009 Randy Olson. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1

1 Don't Be So Cerebral 17

2 Don't Be So Literal Minded 49

3 Don't Be Such a Poor Storyteller 81

4 Don't Be So Unlikeable 119

5 Be the Voice of Science! 149

Appendix 1 The Sizzle Frazzle 175

Appendix 2 Filmmaking for Scientists 181

Appendix 3 Randy Olson Selected Filmography 187

Notes 189

Acknowledgments 193

Index 197

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Customer Reviews

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  • Posted April 8, 2010

    Inspiration for educators

    This book was especially inspiring for me because it argues that, if you want to reach the public, you need to prioritize entertainment and sociability alongside information content. If you aren't entertaining and sociable, your audience may tune out. I teach people, mostly children, about spiders and find myself mixing entertainment with fact for the sake of making a connection. If I don't have a connection, I'm wasting my time trying to convey facts.

    I think the author is arguing for balancing fuzzy-feel-good techniques for connecting with audience on the one hand, and accuracy of information conveyed on the other. Olson acknowledges that certain audiences are sufficiently motivated to absorb pure factual information and that less factual techniques are needed for generating interest among other audiences.

    The book seems to say that sometimes you have to sacrifice factual accuracy for the sake of engaging an audience, and it's understandable that many scientists have not liked the book's message. I have seen some documentaries that are thoroughly engaging and yet supposedly also purely factual, so advancing one doesn't necessarily mean sacrificing the other. But this is very hard to do and may be too much to ask of science communicators in general.

    In my case, I see a blurring of facts as valuable for generating interest in a subject. Once an audience is interested, you can engage them with more factual accuracy. Think of it as iterative learning, with each lesson clarifying and refining the previous, where previous lessons are more entertaining to get the audience hooked. However, I don't recall Olson suggesting that blurring need serve only a transitional function.

    I think Olson makes one critical mistake, though. He rates his "Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy" next to "Judgement Day: Intelligent Design on Trial," saying that the latter is full of information but not very entertaining, while the former is highly entertaining but virtually devoid of information. Olson fails to acknowledge that scientists have no interest in entertaining without educating, and if Sizzle is virtually information-free, there's something wrong with arguing favorably for it in a book on science communication.

    Olson's message remains valuable though. If you are in the business of motivating the public to be interested in some subject, you will need to heed Olson's wisdom.

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  • Posted November 10, 2009

    worthwhile, non-preachy read

    "Don't Be SUCH a Scientist" had me chuckling in the first three pages! Olson uses countless real-life anecdotes to portray his points. His vignettes are both serious and humorous, which make for an overall easy read. Olson goes so far as to call academics "eggheads," leaving the reader unsure what to expect next!

    "By now you may be thinking, 'What's this guy got against intellectuals? He's calling them brainiacs and eggheads.' Well, I spent six wonderful years at Harvard University completing my doctorate, and I'll take the intellectuals any day. But still, it woul be nice if they could just take a little bit of the edge off their more extreme characteristics. It's like asking football players not to wear their cleats in the house. You're not asking them not to be football players, only to use their specific skills in the right places."

    Olson confronts scientists/communicators by provoking and urging them to communicate differently and to utilize visual media. Olson states, "...if you gather scientific knowledge but are unable to convey it to others in a correct and compelling form, you might as well not even have bothered to gather the information."

    The reader should come away with ideas on how to speak the right language to the right audience. This is a worthwhile, non-preachy read!

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    Posted April 3, 2012

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    Posted December 17, 2009

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