Book Review: Don’t Be SUCH A Scientist

Don't Be Such A Scientist

In the middle of the summer of 2008 the ScienceBlogs cat herders relayed some exciting news to my blogging colleagues and I. Randy Olson, creator of the documentary Flock of Dodos, had created a new movie called Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy and wanted to send us all screener copies for a coordinated review “party”. It sounded like a fun opportunity at the time, but little did I know what a headache the movie release would become.

Even though I enjoyed Flock of Dodos, there was one aspect of it that didn’t sit right with me. Part of Randy’s thesis was that scientists fail at helping the public to understand evolution because they are “meanies” while creationists are sugar, spice, and everything nice. Randy supported this by comparing a private poker game of evolutionary scientists to one-on-one interviews with creationists in rustic settings. Even though the poker game was not a public event it was still used to represent how socially inept and out-of-touch scientists are whereas creationists are “nice” when in public and therefore always win. In this way Randy played up the stereotypical image of scientists, and this would remain a running theme in his work.

As I remarked in my review of Randy’s second major film, Sizzle, the promotional tagline “A movie you’ll feel passionate about (even if you don’t know why)” was particularly apt. By the time I finished it I knew I didn’t like it, but I did not know what it was meant to be. The “comedy” wasn’t funny and the “documentary” part lacked coherence, yet despite these criticisms (which had nothing to do with the scientific accuracy of the film) I was branded as being “too much of a scientist” to appreciate the film. Obviously Randy was frustrated by the negative reactions his film received, and his new book Don’t Be SUCH A Scientist seems to be his catharsis in the wake of the failure of Sizzle.

In the book’s introduction Randy tells us about two other books he wanted to write but never completed. The first, an unpublished memoir called “Coral Reefs and Cold Beers” was about his life as a marine biologist, while the second unwritten volume was meant to be a study of how scientists are portrayed in popular culture (which Randy says has already been covered by this year’s Unscientific America). Don’t Be SUCH A Scientist is something of a mix between the two. It uses Randy’s experiences in Hollywood (and a few in academia) to explain how scientists are failing to connect with the public the same way reality tv or pop singles do.

The slim 174-page pamphlet is organized into five sections; “Don’t Be So Cerebral”, “Don’t Be So Literal Minded”, “Don’t Be Such a Poor Storyteller”, “Don’t Be So Unlikeable”, and “Be the Voice of Science!” Much like Sizzle, though, Randy’s narrative is a bit scattered, and at times it was difficult to determine where he was going with his stories. Rather than supporting the story he wanted to tell, the overload of name-dropping and anecdotes from tinseltown sometimes came off as smarmy.

That said, there are some good ideas buried here and there, like bits of good fruit in an otherwise unappealing Jell-O mold. (Not that I find fruit-filled gelatin particularly appealing; the imagery just fits my rhetorical needs best.) In communicating to the public scientists must be aware of how to “hook” their audience early on and then fulfill that desire to know which they have just created. Don’t assume that everyone is just as interested in the scientific topic as you are. You must work to generate that interest and then fulfill it.

Nor is interacting with the media all about soundbites. As Randy points out, training yourself to be a soundbite machine will only make you come across as stiff and you will eventually trip yourself up. Preparation for talks and interviews is important, but what is more vital is to have the confidence in your material to improvise if need be. If you simply lecture at people you will be very easy to tune out, even if what you have to say looks good on paper.

I saw this firsthand during my visit to Yellowstone at the fireside lectures. The best rangers were those who were knew their topic well and were good storytellers. The worst was a new ranger who relied heavily on pre-written notes that he read aloud to the audience. Despite his prep work he was the only one who obviously got tripped up and flustered when his slides got out of sync with the material. The audience was visibly uninspired by his dull delivery.

As with Sizzle, there is some good advice in Don’t Be SUCH A Scientist, even if Randy needs to work on how that material is presented. (Despite its aims, it does not seem to be a book written for an audience of scientists.) Obviously many scientists might be turned off by the title or Randy’s insistence on stereotyping scientists (more on this in a minute), but I would encourage anyone interested in science communication to at least give it a look. It can easily be read in an afternoon and even if you vehemently disagree with Randy on some points there are still some useful practical suggestions in the book, something that similar books have thus far failed to provide.

What most frustrated me about Don’t Be SUCH A Scientist, though, was that Randy uses it as a public forum to lick his wounds and brand sciencebloggers as humorless eggheads. In Randy’s hit-and-run jabs at science bloggers it is clear that he believes that we are all minions of PZ Myers, and this is made all the worse by the fact that he refrains from actually getting into specifics. Science blogging is still a relatively new thing and is certainly not beyond criticism, but Randy’s criticisms hold no weight as they appear to stem entirely from the fact that a number of us did not like his last movie.

(Nor does Randy mention that he was once a member of the ScienceBlogs community. Not only does Randy make the mistake of identifying ScienceBlogs.com as the whole of science blogging, but in his attacks against us he never mentions that he helped found the now-defunct Shifting Baselines blog. I guess, in the wake of Sizzle, Randy doesn’t have anything nice to say about us anymore.)

Randy’s frustration over the failure of Sizzle is especially apparent in Appendix 1, “The Sizzle Frazzle.” After pointing out the social ineptness of us mean ol’ bloggers, Randy concludes;

In the end, while most of the negative reviewers complained most loudly about the absence of information in the movie, I think there was also an unspoken second source of irritation – the presence of humor and emotion. Think back to what I had to say about the robotic nature of technical science communication. In the end, Sizzle was a traditional scientist’s worst nightmare – a big dose of messy humanity. And thus the response was as predictable as clockwork.

I honestly don’t know where Randy is pulling this from. (I have an idea, but in the interest of decency I’ll refrain from airing my hypothesis.) The reviews he is referring to are entirely unlike the ones I saw.

Take my review, for instance. My main criticisms had nothing to do with scientific accuracy. Instead I remarked that the film was a muddle with no clear storyline and that it just wasn’t funny. I understood that Sizzle was not meant to be another An Inconvenient Truth or all about scientific data. Yet in his new book Randy says that, as a scientifically-minded person, I MUST have been obsessing over the data and panned the film because I’m an egghead.

Randy’s assertions do not hold up to scrutiny. Have a look at some of the reviews from my ScienceBlogs peers. Josh Rosenau made similar criticisms about the film as I did, as did Kevin Zelnio, PZ, Tara Smith, Mark Chu-Carroll, GrrlScientist, Razib, Martin Rundkvist, Maria Brumm, ERV, Nick Anthis, James Hrynyshyn, and Janet Stemwedel (who, like me, viewed Sizzle multiple times). Each reviewer had slightly different reasons for disliking the film, among which some mentioned a lack of solid scientific information, but I think Janet summed up the general feeling of the reviewers best when she wrote, “As a movie-goer, I can handle complexity, but I expect something like coherence.” Sizzle failed to deliver in this respect and left most of us confused.

But Randy could not accept this. It did not fit in with his thesis. Why would scientists care about narrative, humor, coherence, and the misguided use of racial stereotypes in Sizzle? No, it really must have been the absence of data that annoyed us so. Yeeeeah, that’s the ticket. It did not matter what we actually said. To Randy, the fact that we were scientists alone was enough to explain why we “just didn’t get” his story.

Randy can’t understand why the test-screening groups liked the movie and science bloggers did not, but it appears that the general public did not like Sizzle much either. It has been over a year since the film was released and, other than the occasional showing at a science film festival, it has sunk into obscurity. It did not gain wide release and there is no DVD. I am sorry, Randy, but Sizzle fizzled, and the reason for that had nothing to do with a lack of data.

Now you might think it unfair to spend so much time on Randy’s last project when this is a review his new book. I beg to differ. Sizzle contained many ideas that resurface in Don’t Be SUCH A Scientist and Randy himself holds up the movie as an example how scientists “just don’t get it” when it comes to the public. Perhaps it will only prove Randy’s point, but I am concerned with his inaccurate depictions of science blogging and the reactions of scientists to his beloved film. This is not about nitpicking data but plain honesty, and apparently Randy was so hurt by the response of writers like myself to his film that he had to find someone to blame.

That “someone” is the stereotypical scientist. It would seem to Randy that we are all the same; a robotic, humorless lot who only speak to each other in arcane languages and never, EVER have any fun. Perhaps that is what Randy must do to shield himself from criticism, but I do not think that it is honest or fair.

Obviously I was quite hurt by Randy’s book. He had sent science bloggers (like me) his work, asked for our honest opinion of it, and when we gave it the response was basically “Well, you’re all just a bunch of nerds.” I really don’t see how Randy, or any other science communication pundit, is going to help scientists improve their public communication skills if they refuse to actually listen to what we have to say.

Overall, there are a few good pieces of advice in Don’t Be SUCH A Scientist. I think scientists who want to improve their communication skills could benefit from thinking about some of the points Randy raises. Other than that, though, the new book is more of a memoir and often gets bogged down in Hollywood anecdotes. If you can bear being antagonized a bit, it might be worth skimming through, but otherwise there is not very much information of practical use for a scientist who want to improve their interactions with the public.

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