Book Review: Don’t Be Such A Scientist


I’ll never forget the day when I argued for protecting parents against misleading and false information about the treatment of autism. I was working at a large consumer health organization whose mission was to “empower patients with accurate information” so that they could take control of their health. My opposition was himself a physician who requested that our organization publish an article that advised parents of children with autism to seek out DAN! practitioners and chelation therapy.

I prepared my remarks with the utmost care and delivered them to a committee of our lay executives. I cited examples of children who had died during chelation treatments, explained exactly why there was no evidence that chelation therapy could improve the symptoms of autism and in fact was based on the false premise that “heavy metals” in vaccines were implicated in the etiology of the disease. I concluded that it would be irresponsible for the company to publish such misleading advice/information for parents, and would in fact be counter to our entire mission.

My physician opponent suggested that it was our company’s duty to inform parents of all their options, that we should not be judgmental about treatments, and that I was part of a paternalistic medical establishment that tried to silence creative thinking.

The committee ended up siding with my opponent. I was flabbergasted and asked one of the committee members what on earth they were thinking. She simply shrugged and said that my opponent was more likable than I was.

This experience marked the beginning of my journey towards fighting fire with fire – understanding that being right is not the same as being influential, and that “winning” an argument (where lives are on the line) requires a different skill set than I learned in my scientific training.

Book Review

And so it was with great interest that I picked up Randy Olson’s book, Don’t Be Such A Scientist: Talking Substance In An Age Of Style. I was pleased to see that other scientists had experienced the same revelation – that we need to be more communication-savvy to become more societally-influential.

Olson’s book outline is simple: four “don’ts” and one “do.” Don’t be so cerebral, literal-minded, poor at telling stories, or unlikeable. Do be the voice of science. He begins his book with a captivating story: a marine biologist goes to Hollywood and is shredded by an acting teacher for being incapable of raw emotion. Most scientists will get a good chuckle out of this narrative and will relate to Olson’s culture shock.

As the book winds along, the reader is introduced to a series of the author’s former girlfriends. He reminisces:

She would listen to me talk and talk and talk to the old folks and finally, by the end of the day, she would have had enough. So her favorite thing to do in the evening was, when I was done talking, to look deeply, romantically, lovingly into my eyes and say in a soft and seductive Germanic voice… “You bore me.”… p.82

Another girlfriend developed an affectionate nickname for me, “Chief Longwind,” which she would abbreviate when I’d get going on something and just say, “That’s enough for tonight, Chief.” p.83

Unfortunately, as these ladies noted, Olson’s strong suit is not compelling dialog – a tragic irony for a book written to inspire more effective science communication. Nonetheless, since scientists are rarely deterred by boredom, I think that there are some conceptual gems worth unearthing.

These are my top 5 take-home messages:

1. Communicate in a human way – be humorous, tell stories, don’t feel as if you have to present all the details. The goal is to get people curious enough to ask more questions.

2. Broad audiences prefer style over substance – learn to be bilingual (to speak with academics versus a general audience).

3. Marketing is critical for influence. The creators of Napoleon Dynamite spent a few hundred thousand dollars on production and $10 million on advertising/marketing. The movie grossed $50 million. Scientists who wish to be influential (or get their message across broadly) must bow the knee to the marketing gods.

4. Some people are naturally good communicators, others are not. Find the good ones and make them  spokespeople. “The strongest voice is that of a single individual.” p. 166

5. Likability trumps everything. People make snap judgments about whether or not they like you, and your message’s impact is dependent upon your likability factor. Likability is related to humor, emotion, and passion. p. 148

And so, Don’t Be Such A Scientist offers some great food for thought – and I suppose if it hadn’t been written by a scientist it might also have been a more engaging read! But who am I to say, I’m still trying to bend my mind around the idea that Americans don’t care about facts.

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Science and the Media

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13 thoughts on “Book Review: Don’t Be Such A Scientist

  1. Scott says:

    I’m still trying to bend my mind around the idea that Americans don’t care about facts.

    I think this is a large part of the problem. Quite a lot of logical, scientifically-minded people (including myself) simply don’t get how the more intuitive part of the world thinks. So we try to communicate as if they thought the same way we do, and fail miserably.

    It doesn’t help that scientific terminology is so precise. A typical good scientist, if asked “do vaccines cause autism”, wouldn’t dream of answering with a straight-up “no”, because he understands that the evidence doesn’t prove such an absolute. But the only answers that will be understood are “yes”, “no”, and “don’t know”. So properly delineating what the evidence actually shows gets interpreted as “don’t know”. But “no” is much closer to the truth, so communication has not been achieved.

    I guess that would fall under “learn to be bilingual.”

  2. weing says:

    You make an excellent case for including rhetoric as a prerequisite in the education of a scientist. If we could combine style with substance, that would be ideal. Applying the advances made in cognitive psychology to the promulgation of science should be able to convince the masses of the validity of the scientific method and instruct them in the critical thinking skills required to evaluate evidence. All with the effort required to watch a TV commercial.

  3. Michelle B says:

    Unlike Mooney’s and Kirschenbaum’s, Unscientific America, this book sounds helpful, practical, and a breath of fresh air.

    Great post, Val.

    Often it is the passion behind the knowledge of science that gets nerdy types to be so longwinded, verbose, and detail-oriented. This passion, which is very attractive in general, needs to be liberated from its academic/scholarly chains so it can do good.

  4. AS says:

    This mirrors a complaint I’ve had for a long time now even about talks given by scientists to other scientists. Every talk in any context must start with a concise, engaging explanation of _why your work is important_ (or cool, as the case may be).

    I started tracking this at a conference last year. Roughly half the speakers just launched into detalia, and even if I cared about the topic, I didn’t care. The good speakers snag you immediately. I find that I’m a successful speaker because I’m basically pitching my topic the entire time, salesman-style.

    When I hear people complaining about the upcoming shift in NIH proposals from 25 to 15 pages (“You can’t fit it all in!”), I shake my head. If you can’t say it concisely, you don’t really understand what’s important.

  5. rosemary says:

    What so many scientists fail to understand is that communicating, educating and yes, marketing, are professions and just because they have skill, intelligence, talent and a great deal of experience, learning and training in specific areas of science and medicine doesn’t translate into having those same skills in communicating with the general public. Nor should it. While there are always a few among us who are talented and capable of proficiency in many areas, most do not have those abilities. That is why team work is required to accomplish so much in this world.

    Not too long ago we were blessed with many “science writers” or journalists who actually knew science and were able to teach it to the general public, but I’m told that with the demise of the newspaper industry that these were among the first to be let go.

    IMO, when scientists get together and rant to let off steam while it may make them feel better, if the general public hears them, it does more harm than good. It leaves the public thinking that they are stereotypes of doctors alts hold up for ridicule. That is a shame. If only they’d rant at the water cooler with colleagues and find professionals to help them educate the public they would accomplish so much more and be much happier themselves in the long run!

    I always find it ironic that so many scientists, people who scrupulously review the evidence when evaluating drugs and therapies, fail to understand that that is exactly what marketing professionals try to do to determine if their efforts are effective at convincing the public that they really must buy the product they are pitching.

    As I always say, the real scientists in the supplement industry are in their marketing departments which is why they have taken over the world. Yet in medicine very few realize the need to get feedback to see if their efforts at communicating are effective, ineffective or detrimental and very few realize the need to at the very least consult with professionals in other fields to learn the best way to educate the general public.

  6. colinburgess says:

    I’d love to see what Carl Zimmer thinks of this book –

  7. Zetetic says:

    I think this is why I have a distaste for attorneys and used car salesmen… They both make their living with influential jabber!

  8. Tsuken says:

    I encountered the converse this week at a symposium I attended. One of the speakers was describing his (very interesting and potentially important) work relating to depression and possibilities for primary prevention. It was apparent to me he must have quite a bit of practice dealing with the media, as his presentation (to a roomful of doctors and scientists, mind you) was peppered rather liberally with sound-bites – to the point, unfortunately, of sounding as though he was over-stating the evidence or its implications. The bulk of his talk did demonstrate his awareness of the limitations, which I why I think he does know what he was talking about, but while he’s clearly gained fluency in another tongue (media/public-speak), he didn’t appear able to switch back into sciencey-mode with a very sciencey audience.

    For me it meant I had to try extra hard to listen properly and identify the real conclusions – and it was a bit off-putting, at least initially.

  9. weing says:

    I think Rosemary is correct. We tend to have substance without style and the CAMs have style without substance. They are beating us at this game. They are not the only ones. We are losing the war against obesity too. I believe a major reason is the successful use of marketing science to sell the consumption of food products beyond what’s needed. In order to win, we need to apply similar technology to market healthy eating and lifestyles. Guess who has the money?

  10. woo-fu says:

    Thanks for this timely post. I’m eager to check out this book. For the most part I enjoy reading the posts and comments here on SBM except when they stray from the facts and break down into insults, which seems to really hurt that likability factor and can alienate the very individuals contributors want to teach. When that happens, people are only “preaching to the choir.”

    For real education to occur, the presenter needs to be able to put herself/himself into the shoes of the “other,” understanding rather than condemning. This especially holds true for those who have tried CAM, which many do only after standard medical care fails to help or causes them side-effects they cannot tolerate. Through understanding, contributors can find a voice that reaches across rather than widens the perceived divide.

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