Thoughts on Don’t be Such a Scientist by Randy Olson

As well as developing the social media presence for the Annals of Botany, I’ve also started work on writing press releases for some papers in the journal. From following various blogs I’m aware that there’s a low opinion of press releases and science journalism. PhD Comics’ Science News Cycle has more than a grain of truth about it. At the same time journalists can, with some justification, complain about scientists. I know more than one academic who has complained about the dire state of coverage for his subject, but has never actively sought out a journalist to say what he’s doing. I’m not sure anyone has the skill to follow all papers in several fields to find out what are the newsworthy papers.

I’m tackling the science side by involving paper authors in the press release process. The press releases I write go back to the authors to check that I haven’t mutilated the paper too much. Still there has to be more to writing a release than replacing Latin names with friendlier English versions. So I’ve also been reading round science communication.

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One book I finished recently is Don’t be Such a Scientist by the filmmaker Randy Olson (Flock of Dodos, Sizzle). It’s a worthwhile read though I’m not sure how much of I agree with some of the claims. At the heart of the book there is an inherent contradiction. Olson claims that, as a general rule, scientists communicate to scientists and extrapolate that communication to the general public. Tactics that work with scientists don’t work with non-scientists. For example facts don’t simply speak for themselves, you need engaging stories, and he illustrates that with a series of anecdotes. I agree but at the same time I stumble over another problem. Who is this book for?

If it’s to persuade data-driven scientists, then why isn’t the book backed up with the facts and figures to show that he’s not just pulling his advice from the air? One of the keys to communication, he says, is to know your audience. I completely agree. If that’s the case then all the while in the back of my head there’s an itch; Olson is communicating the message he wants to give rather than the message that might resonate best with his audience.

This isn’t an entirely fair criticism. His arguments on writing style aren’t really suitable for digitisation and tabulation. On the other hand if you’re going to tell people that what they’re doing is wrong, as he does with many science bloggers, then you need more than “I don’t like it.” An approach may not work for you but no approach will work for all the public. It’s an odd stance for Olson to take because elsewhere he’s very good on the unrealistic desire for magic bullets that solve everything in one go. But saying that Smith or Jones or are appealing to the their audience in the wrong way should be justified by saying why these people should not be catered for. You could argue that Smith or Jones (because Olson doesn’t drop the name Myers) should write in a less abrasive or confrontational way, but that won’t work for some of the audience. Then you get into the situation where you complain that you have the wrong sort of public.

A lot of these concerns are tackled in the closing chapters. Olson talks about the importance of personal voice which seems to be against the notion of a communication monoculture. He’s also clear that this isn’t THE book on science communication. It works better as a discussion piece so I thought to pick it up in that spirit. Large chunks of it are available via Google Books if you want to compare the forthcoming blog posts with what Olson is actually saying. I won’t have THE solution for science communication by the end of it, but you might have a better idea of why I’m making mistakes when I make them.

Randy Olson on Don’t be Such a Scientist.