Don’t Be So Cerebral?

Bob Blumer - Surreal Gourmet. Photo by Roland Tanglao.
Is the way to someone’s heart through their gut? Photo Bob Blumer – Surreal Gourmet by Roland Tanglao.

I’m following my introduction to Don’t Be Such a Scientist with a look at the first chapter of the book. It opens with Randy Olson’s four organs model of communication based on the Head, Heart, Gut and Sex Organs. The Head is rational and responds to facts. It’s the organ that scientists respond to, at least in an ideal world. Olson argues that to connect with most people you have to move communication from the Head to the Heart so that it’s a matter of feeling. Ideally you should even move into the Gut a less rational place that’s about what you instinctively know, even if it’s wrong. If you really want a connection the goal is the Sex Organs an utterly chaotic region ruled by desire. I have a couple of problems with this.

One is that I don’t like this model. If Olson’s right then if change is going to happen then it’s not going to happen through Humanity collectively acting rationally. No matter what side of the political spectrum you sit on, you’d almost certainly like decisions to be made on an intelligent basis. I might know this intellectually, but to act on it as fact feels like a surrender. Of course whether or not I like it doesn’t make it true or false. It does prime my defences against his argument.

The second problem is that it’s demonstrably false. Rational fact-based argument doesn’t work? Well it does for me, and for most of the people I know. So clearly he’s simply wrong.


The fact-based communication strategy might work for me, but my belief it works is based on personal experience. Even bringing people I know into account doesn’t work because an awful lot of people I know work in the university. “It works for me” is a Heart or Gut-based argument in Olson’s model, not Head-based. Even if it does work for me, it doesn’t follow this one approach, or any one approach, will work for everyone. A difficulty for me at the moment is that if I’m writing a press release then I do have just the one shot.

Another argument against Head-based writing, if you’re targeting a mass audience, is that you have to look at how scientific training works. Degrees spend at least three years teaching scientific processes and another one or two years at M-level before you can start your PhD. Digesting knowledge in that way is a skill, and scientists can still be ignorant of what makes a compelling argument in fields outside of their own expertise. So should a good press release (or blog) for a general audience take this into account or take the view that if people really want the information they should work for it. The latter approach is probably safer. If I do that I can say any failure is down to the shallowness of the media and make a virtue of “refusing to dumb down”.

I’ve decided that the experts on the papers in Annals of Botany are the people who wrote them. It’s a pretty obvious conclusion. If I were to try to replicate that kind of writing, not only would I be duplicating their efforts, but also I’d be duplicating them badly. That means thinking more about writing, and Olson’s model is a good place to start thinking from. I had a nibble at moving the writing to the heart and sex organs in this release on Sundews. Fortunately the editors have been clear that they’re after people between Botanical students to research scientists, so falling short and writing too cerebrally isn’t a disaster. If I go too far in the other direction there’s plenty of people who’ll let me know.

See also Don’t be so cerebral on Uncommon Ground.

  • Hi Alun,

    There is a great article on evidence based decision making in the Boston Globe. The punchline is that for the majority of people, they change their level of trust in a piece of evidence to match their predefined beliefs. Direct confrontation with facts can change people’s minds, but passive reading of facts tends not to. It’s a disheartening piece, but ties in very well with your blog post.

  • I loved Randy Olson’s book. It’s obviously not a manual for science communication. I read it as a humorous slap in the face of so many scientists who don’t know how to talk about their research to anybody other than their own peers.

    By the way, your press release on sundews is a really nice piece!