Skip to main content

Don’t be Such a Scientist – Randy Olson ***

I have to admit up front that this book doesn’t score as well as it should because it’s not really popular science. I think it’s an excellent book – but the audience really is the science community, and though scientists do read popular science (often outside their own discipline), a true popular science book should appeal to non-scientists.
The reason it’s so targeted is that this book is designed to tell scientists how to communicate better. It’s rather strange that it’s subtitled ‘talking substance in an age of style,’ because what it really is about is teaching scientists how to add style and subtract substance. That might seem like heresy – but Randy Olson argues quite rightly that the scientist’s pernickety insistence on getting everything just right and not really worrying about how glossy the presentation is simply doesn’t wash in a mass media world.
Olson went from being a biology professor to Hollywood, so is ideally placed to gently lead the scientific lambs to the communications slaughter. He rightly points out how scientists can bore people, and even worse can put them off by talking down to them. He points out how some science bloggers (and though he doesn’t mention him, the likes of Richard Dawkins) take an attitude that’s effectively ‘if you don’t agree with me, you are stupid.’ This isn’t any way to win people over to your argument.
In the main it’s a great book with lots of useful guidance. The only area I’d disagree is Olson’s assertion that the future is film, and that in the future we’ll see lots of scientists communicating via home made videos. I think video content will increase, but blogs and Twitter (for example) are, to me, much better ways to communicate science than amateurish videos. And realistically, most scientists aren’t going to do what Olson did and take time off from their careers to go to film school for several years.
So – highly recommended for all scientists and even science writers. We all could be better at the way we communicate science. Though Olson’s book isn’t a step-by-step guide to science communication – it’s much more broad brush – it will help get an understanding of where scientists get it wrong. which is more than half the battle. For the right audience, highly recommended.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Art of Logic - Eugenia Cheng ***

This is an important book, though I'm not sure Eugenia Cheng would agree with my logic in saying so. 

Going on the marketing, what we have here is a counter to fake news and dodgy argumentation in the form of mathematical logic. The back cover tells us 'Newspaper headlines and social media use emotions to warp the facts. Politicians and companies master rhetoric to mislead us. What one book could help us make sense of it all?' Admittedly they don't answer their rhetorical question, but I assume the answer is intended to be The Art of Logic. (Did the company behind this book realise it was using rhetoric, though presumably not to mislead us?) 

What we actually have is a combination of a lucid and interesting explanation of the basics of logic with the mathematical equivalent of those books such as Algorithms to Live By that were so popular a couple of years ago. They used the logic of algorithms (differently worded, and, to me, easier to understand), the heart of computer…

Quantum Economics - David Orrell ****

David Orrell's earlier title Economyths is one of my favourite popular science books of all time. Or, perhaps, I should say popular non-science, as Orrell shows just how devastatingly traditional economics uses the tools of science without having a scientific basis. I was, therefore, really looking forward to reading Orrell's new book - until I saw the title. As anyone involved with physics can tell you, there's nothing more irritating than the business of sticking the word 'quantum' onto something to give a pseudo-scientific boost to waffle and woo. Was Orrell doing the same thing? Thankfully, his introduction put my fears aside.

Orrell, a mathematician with a physics background quickly makes it clear that the way he is using quantum theory is not just employing magic words, but involves making use of strong parallels between the nature of quantum objects and concepts like money (more on money in a moment). Yes, this is to some extent a metaphorical use of quantum …

The Ashtray - Errol Morris *****

Wow. When someone suggested I read a book called The Ashtray, written by a documentary film-maker, it didn't strike me that it would be a book that gave deep insights into the history and philosophy of science - while also being a remarkable reading experience. In fact, I almost didn't bother with it, but I'm glad that I did.

The titular ashtray was thrown at the author when he was a grad student - thrown by one of the two best known names in the philosophy of science, Thomas Kuhn, he of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and the concept of paradigm shifts. Kuhn didn't like the young Errol Morris daring to challenge his ideas and reacted with what some would regard as a less than philosophical reply by hurling a heavy glass ashtray at him.

Part of the reason that reading The Ashtray is a remarkable experience is because it's a book that feels in some ways like watching a documentary. I have to confess I've never seen any of Morris's work, but he uses vis…