Randy Olson – Don’t Be Such a Scientist

October 23, 2009

Randy Olson is a marine biologist and filmmaker who holds a PhD in biology from Harvard University. A graduate of the U.S.C. Cinema School in 1997, he wrote and directed the movies Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus, and Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy. His new book is out now called Don’t Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style.

In this interview with D.J. Grothe, Randy Olson discusses his background as a Harvard-trained scientist and tenured professor and why he changed careers to become a filmmaker. He explains the differences between science education and science communication. He recounts the social changes, beginning in the 1980’s, that have harmed science education and the communication of science to the public. He describes the ways that filmmaking is ideal for public science advocacy, and how his films, such as Flock of Dodos, have unexpectedly led to further public engagement with the scientific community. He emphasizes the role of storytelling as the means to best communicate science to the public, and describes how scientific papers are like screenplays.

He talks about the Daily Show and the Colbert Report as examples of how serious issues, including scientific controversies, can be communicated to the public in entertaining and engaging ways. He talks about how Stephen J. Gould and Carl Sagan exemplified ways to avoid being “such a scientist,” by arousing interest and by being likable. He addresses the stereotypes of scientists as being humorless, stuffy and too literal. He describes the reaction his book has received from the science community. He criticizes the National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science for their disinterest in science activism. He contrasts the community of scientists with other professional learned societies, such as within law or medicine. He examines the responsibility of the public to learn science even despite how effective scientists are at communicating it. And he explores the role of increasingly mainstream anti-science movements in the public’s misunderstanding of climate research, evolution, and vaccinations.