Don’t Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance In an Age of Style

Randy Olson, Island Press, Washington, DC, 2009, ISBN: 978-159726-563-8, 207 pages, $19.95

Reviewed by Leonard R. Solon

The basic message of this fairly short book is that scientists, and even some prestigious non-scientists such as Al Gore (on global warming), endeavoring to convey important scientific ideas needed by the public, fail either partially or completely. Starting with this premise the author advances corrections to his postulated problem.

The work is structured largely as an autobiography of the author, first as a Harvard PhD in marine biology and then as a tenured professor at the University of New Hampshire who at age 38 is beginning a new professional life at as a Hollywood film maker. There is little question as to which aspect of his life he views as more decisive.  One of the appendices lists 14 films written and directed by Olson during 1990-2008, most of which have titles related to marine science.  Several of these films have won awards and a good deal of TV or internet exposure. Olson's published scientific papers are not listed, though this omission does not appear in his judgment to be relevant to the book's central thesis.

Olson's formula for reaching a mass audience is mostly summarized in an italicized paragraph in the first chapter, a chapter titled Don't Be So Cerebral:  "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." He expands this hypothesis in sometimes surprising detail, occasionally pushing the envelope too hard with an arguable infelicity. "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." Frankly, this reviewer's reaction is not to smile but to say: "C'mon!"

Is this book worth anyone's attention, whether he or she be a scientist or an intelligent layman concerned with contemporary ideas? Though not persuaded by the author's arguments, this reviewer feels the book deserves reading.  It does raise a serious question, but without providing a suitable answer.  Today, when a sizeable number (maybe a majority) of citizens, including hyper-religious constituents and others, has actually induced a growing group of state legislatures to challenge Darwinian evolution or the clear validity of the hazards of global warming, it is apparent that scientific communication has not been successful despite the existing abundance of it.  However, the cure must be more fundamental than Olson's criticism of excessive cerebral effort, or lack of clarity, or lack of style by the collective scientific community.

The United States, though still the world's leader in the physical and biological sciences, is finding that our students are falling behind other nations in mathematical and scientific achievement.  Something does need to change.  The book is illuminating and fun to read. Olson's former wife's admonition "Please ... don't be such a scientist," which led to his title, does have merit. There is much of ancillary interest in the book's content. And Olson has done a reasonable job of alerting us to a consequential problem. So the book is worth reading.  But the solution or solutions are more complex than he proposes.  Perhaps his proposals can stimulate some of his readers to find more meaningful approaches.

Leonard R. Solon, Ph.D

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.