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.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, October 20 3rd, 2009. 

Welcome to Point of Inquiry, I’m D.J. Growthy Point of Inquiries, the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs and at the grass roots. My guest this week is Randy Olson, a filmmaker and former scientist. Now he’s a science educator, a science communicator. He’s the writer and director of the critically acclaimed films Flock of Dodos The Evolution, Intelligent Design, Circus and Sizzle, a global warming comedy. He joins me on the show to talk about his book. Don’t be such a scientist talking substance in an age of style. Randy Olson, welcome to Point of Inquiry. 

Thank you very much. Great to be here. 

Before we get into your book, Randy, let’s talk a bit about your background. Really interesting. You’re a Harvard science PGD. You were a tenured professor of marine biology, but you quit all that to become a filmmaker. Yep. Yeah. So what gives? You know, most people, you know, would kill their in-laws or something, maybe not to be a tenured professor some place and then ended up not being all it was cracked up to be. 

Well, no, it was great. It was good fun and I enjoyed it, but I kind of got preempted by a secondary interested in becoming stronger than the science guru because I got involved in science communication. Was turnout out. Very interested that it would. 

But you’re almost drawing a distinction between being a science professor and science communication as if those are not the same thing. 

Yikes. Guilty as charged. You caught me. Yeah. 

One would hope that a scientist and a science communicator would be one and the same, but not really. And in fact, you know, that’s perhaps hopefully a little one little thing that’s unique in my perspective is that I can sympathize with so many of the grumpy scientists that want communicators to just go away and leave me alone. I was in that position myself. And there’s a part of my brain that’s still there that remembers that they just want to go out and do the research. And you get so tired of all these people full of hot air that are involved. Communication stuff in there is somewhat of a trend of a lot of people who kind of washed out of the science world to get into communications and they end up doing a bad job communicating science because they never did understand the science to begin with. I totally understand with that perspective. And yet that’s no reason to dismiss the importance of communication. And that’s the bottom line. But more importantly is that the landscape has changed in the past 10 to 15 years from the landscape of what I got trained in as a scientist in the 1970s. Science communication was nowhere near as important as it is today. 

Was it less of a science then? Or in other words, it seems like there have been developments in the field of communication that, you know, you can do research in that to really command a certain direction vs., you know, just speaking science to folks. 

I see it as the media landscape being similar to like the adaptive landscape when you study evolution. And it’s this whole topography of peaks and valleys and things like that. And the media landscape was changing very slowly in the 50s and 60s and 70s. But it began to change, especially in the 80s. I mean, that’s I started graduate school in 78. And when Reagan got elected and the 80s just changed everything. And that’s when the information explosion began, you saw everybody’s behavior begin to change. You saw professors who previously were so kind and generous with their time, suddenly became time optimizers and suddenly were looking at their watch. When you went to them for advice and instead of them giving you all afternoon, they were like, well, I could fit in about 10 minutes here and then I got to get ready to do this. The other thing, the whole world changed Reagan and his whole mentality that he brought in changed everything. And it’s never been the same since then. And the science world has suffered as a result of it, I think. And what are you gonna do, be mad at it or try and figure out how those changes have affected everything and try to figure out how to work within the system and in trying to figure out how to work within the system. 

You went into filmmaking. You’ve made critically acclaimed films, Flock of Dodos, your film about intelligent design, creationism. It was a critical success, but is film making for you really proving to be all you imagined it would be as this way to get science messages out to the public? 

Oh, yeah. It’s it’s both a nightmare and a blast. 

It’s it’s the worst thing in the world trying to make films and yet they have a magic to them. That’s really wonderful. I think one of the best things with both of the movie FLOC about is and sizzle is what they lead to after they’re made. So, you know, it’s interesting making them all sorts of headaches. But what I never foresaw was that once Dodo’s is finished, the two to three years we’ve had since then, which has turned out to be the much more interesting part of the whole process. When we went to the Tribeca Film Festival in 2006 with FLOCCO. Everybody start to say, what’s the next, what’s next? And it never occurred to me that what would be next would be the next year and a half of doing events with the movie. And that the events would prove to be more interesting than the movie itself. And I learned so much through the events and we’ve done over 100 screenings, a flock of dodos. In fact, next Tuesday, we’re having one for the celebration of the publication of or Species at USC. They’re put together whole big amount of panel discussion with the evolutionists. And it’s wonderful that the film serve as a social focal point to pull a group of hundreds of people together and give them something that gets them aroused and charged up and interested on the subject without bombarding them with too much information. It’s eighty five minutes of putting you into this world of the conflict over evolution, intelligent design, and then why it’s over and the lights come up. You bring out the real experts who then the audience actually, instead of, you know, dreading somebody coming out and hitting them a lot of information. It’s the reverse. The audience is actually desperate for the experts to come out and fill in all the questions that they’ve got. And that’s a lot of what the second chapter of my book is about, whose basic principle of and fulfill. 

First, you want to get people charged up and interested in what you have to say. Then you bring out the heavy duty information. 

So this agenda to kind of present science through films is just to get people’s appetites and then make them or encourage them to go seek the details. In other words, don’t Jim Underdown don’t get too heavy on the facts when you’re first presenting an idea. Instead, entice or kind of seduce the people into the story. 

That’s absolutely my orientation on the thing, and I think it irks some people. But the science is not that broadly appealing to the general public. It’s pretty heavy and intense and sterile, and you need to use things to get people hooked and charged up and interested. And that’s that principle of aroused and fulfill. Stephen Jay Gould was one of the greatest popularizers of science ever with a master at knowing how to begin all of his essays with a few paragraphs of just pure arousal that usually had nothing to do with the world of science. They looked into things from art and history and architecture and Mickey Mouse and baseball, and then used that as a means of reaching that broader audience and pulling them into the world of science in a logical manner and segway into the science that he wanted to present. 

There is a way to do that, to reach the broader general audience, and that’s what this is about. And that, by the way, is is really my major interest in not communicating to other academics. That’s a different mode of communication, but trying to reach the people that don’t normally come to a talk about evolution. 

Yeah, well, at least that was your point with Flock of Dodos. You kind of asked the question in that movie. Are scientists the dodos for failing to effectively communicate the importance of science, or at least in that instance, the evolution issue? Or is the global public the dodo’s for buying into unsupported intelligent design creationism stuff? Just, you know. Tell our listeners your view. Are both the dodos or I mean, where do you lay the blame in in the case of Dodaro on the public at all? 

I mean, I, I think the other group of dodos are the people that are trying to take the world of science and use it for their own efforts to distort it and all the dishonesty that they’re brought into it, namely a lot of the intelligent design movement that and a lot of evolutionists, when they first saw the title, thought that that’s what this movie was gonna be, was the all out assault on the world of intelligent design. It wasn’t that at all. It was really meant to be a little more Three-Dimensional than that. But that is the alternate dimension to it. Is the idea that even though you have a bunch of PGD and a whole bunch of knowledge, you may still come off as a dodo? And it’s kind of counterintuitive. One would like to think that evolution, that education is the be all and end all. But that was the shocking realization I got when I’m moved to Hollywood in 1994. And in particular, I entered into this acting class, which is what I opened my book with a vignette from the first day in the class when this woman began screaming her head off at me. And that was the first moment that I realized that maybe I wasn’t quite as smart as I thought I was, that there’s something more than just academic knowledge to be had. 

So don’t be such a scientist. This book scientists, Randi, are what among the most respected professions in our society. 

They have all this stature. We hold them up to be so important. You’re actually saying, though, don’t be such a scientist and you kind of give in to this stereotype that scientists are these stuffy, boring, tough minded kind of scolding or humorless? What if they’re not a positive kind of person in your book? They’re kind of always going around correcting everyone. You say. Don’t be such a scientist. 

Well, to begin with, every profession has its extremes like that. And as I mentioned, the little video on our website, you could retitled the book, Don’t be such a lawyer. Don’t be such a doctor. Don’t be such an accountant. My older brother is a lawyer that trains lawyers in the state of Montana. And from the outset of this. He just kept saying, you know, you could write the same book for my profession. There’s all the same stereotypes of lawyers. You know, we were just so caught up in their legal ease and they’ve got such a myopic perspective. 

But you don’t have a problem fomenting that stereotype. 

Oh, I’m not fomenting it. I’m just pointing it out and pointing out what the downside of it is. And the vast majority of scientists are pretty good natured about this. And when I go to universities, we have some good laughs about it. And what I think is most important is from the beginning of the writing of the book. One of the editors at Island Press, Todd Baldwin, who is just brilliant editor and did everything to make this book work to whatever extent it does work. But one of the first questions he hit me with is what’s the perspective of this book? Is this about you scientists or is it about we scientists? Hmm. And I said, you know what? I thought it through. And it’s about we scientists. And as you read it, you see towards the end of it, I concede the fact that I’ve spent 20 years running around Hollywood out here making films and trying to some extent, seeing if I could reprogram my brain in my voice a little bit to be less of the voice of the scientist. And it wasn’t possible. You know, once you’ve done a Ph.D., your voice as a scientist is as indelible as your fingerprints. You’re not going to trace it. And that’s what a lot of little funny anecdotes are that begin the chapters. You know, the idea that I’m at a cocktail party with all these Hollywood people and even though I’ve been through film school with these same kids that were in my class 15 years later, my voice is still completely distinctive from all of them. We’ve been through all the same experiences, but I had that previous developmental thing that happened to me of being a scientist. And my voice is this way. 

Jim Underdown, you’re almost saying that your PGD, what innocence ruined you as a communicator? And in this book you’re speaking to scientists directly to try to kind of fix that. You’re showing them how they get this whole project of talking science to the public all wrong. And you actually say things like, you know, scientists stop taking things so literally, be more likable. Let me ask you what the reaction spend. You said that, you know, you speak on a college campus about the book and and, you know, there are a lot of laughs with the scientists, whatever, but no one likes to be told how plumb wrong they are. And that’s what you’re doing in this book. 

Yep. Sorry about that. 

And, you know, if I hadn’t been there and done that myself and again, if the book wasn’t packed full of my own embarrassing anecdotes of doing the very same thing, I’d perhaps feel a little guilty about that. But it’s not. And, you know, everybody needs to lighten up that. The strongest response so far has been from environmentalists who are stuck with working with scientists and the folks that I mean, just yesterday there was a big meeting here in California, only say what the subject was about. But a bunch of my environmental friends were there and they sent me a bunch emails because one of the key people they brought up in front of the state legislators speak on their issue was a scientist who one person referred to this person suffered from scientist in mouth disease and said, would you please send him a copy of your book? It’s it’s a syndrome. And as I say, most scientists are pretty good natured about it. They know that they’re not the best communicators. And there’s a lot to be learned from the book. And one of the nice things is several journalists that have interviewed me have said, I read your book. I already know everything in it. We all know everything in it. 

But we’re hoping that maybe for the first time the science community will listen to you because it’s coming from a scientist who had tenure and went the whole distance because they sure won’t listen to the journalists when they talk about these things, particularly the chapter on storytelling. Right. Which is infinitely important, infinitely complex. And it’s already there in the world of science. It’s just that there is this basic norm, an ethic of not talking about storytelling and using other euphemisms for it, such as editing and things like that. Right. 

Well, before we get to the storytelling and that is the big push in your book, you just implied that the people really to blame for scientific illiteracy in our society or the problems with science, communication, arts, science, journalists or the media in general, not necessarily even the anti science movements out there, but scientists themselves. You lay the blame in this book any way squarely at the feet of scientists. 

Oh, I laid squarely at the feet of the leadership of the science community. And that’s the question. Who’s in charge? 

Who is it that is setting the agenda and policy and what the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Whoo hoo! Ah! 

That’s that’s exactly who I would point to the most. I mean, there in a potential leadership position. And yet because of this basic science behavior, they tend to not want to lead. They tend to not want to get involved in politics, by the way. And in the summer of 2006, I got caught up in the whole e-mail squabble where I was sending. Two people at some of those science organizations saying what’s the deal here in the state of Kansas? The Intelligent Design Board members are up for reelection and outside forces are pouring money into the state to promote intelligent design. Where’s the money for the evolution side of this issue? And I was told back, we don’t do that. You know, that’s politics. We don’t get involved with that. The defense of evolution in the state of Kansas in the summer 2006 fell to a bunch of high school teachers, primarily working on the weekends with no money for paying for mailings or anything like that or buying any mass media. And I think that’s not the way it should be. I think that the attacks on the world of science are extremely serious, and the science world as a profession ought to become more focused on that and accept it. It’s a profession that’s going to need a social dynamic to defend itself. Otherwise, the circles are going to continue to be spun around evolution. And I really don’t like seeing that. 

So you’re not just saying scientists need to be better communicators. You’re saying scientists need to be better activists? 

I’m saying that the landscape has changed and it’s a new day and age for the world of science that you’ve got to accept. This has happened in the past 10 years. There is this new syndrome. And fortunately, there are a lot of good books coming out about it. You know, starting with Chris Mooney and Cheryl Kirshen, mom pointing to what the problem is, unscientific America. And then Michael Specter’s book on denialism. And there’s another great book called The Climate Cover Up from James Hogan. And I’m actually teaming up with in a couple of weeks for a civil screening UCLA. Lots of these people are writing books now that are beginning to directly target the anti science movement. But it’s been a kind of slow time in coming. And again, I don’t see that it’s coming from the large organizations. It’s coming from individual writers that are beginning to voice that. This is a very serious concern. And as as Michael Specter’s book is pointing to, it’s all over the place in all these different science disciplines. It’s happening as a large scale movement. 

So it’s not just on the evolution, intelligent design controversy, but, you know, there are a lot of fields of science are under attack. 

Absolutely. You know that climate science is very those are the two movies that I’ve done. It’s been about the anti science movements and Dodo’s. It was anti evolution, incivility, anti climate science. But there are other fields as well. And there’s all the stuff in medicine and there’s the vaccination questioning of all those sorts of things. And it’s not just questioning. It’s just ignoring the the voice of the world science that says, look, here’s all the data and people just saying, you know, we don’t care about data. That’s just your opinions or whatever. And I think that’s where it does start to become dangerous. And, you know, I wonder about this, the title of Specter’s book, Denialism and the term denials and those sorts of things, because I think that’s sort of emanating from Diaby of Holocaust denial. 

And Holocaust deniers are a miniscule group who are I hate I would want to call them laughable, but they’re so small they have no real political clout, really very, very fringe. 

But these anti science groups, they’re not fringe. They’re increasingly mainstream. 

That’s exactly right. So I wonder if denial is even the right term for them because they are an increasingly large, well-funded movement, particularly the resistance to climate science. And I’ve been pointing out lately, this past spring, Environmental Defense Fund sent out a mass e-mail for the first time. I saw one of the large environmental groups finally call it as it is and said, look, last year, 450 million dollars was spent on the anti climate science lobby. And now seven out of every eight lobbyists on Capitol Hill are fighting against any sort of climate action. And it’s a serious movement. At what point does the science world finally start to organize itself and say, we’ve got to address this head on, as opposed to hoping that’ll go away? Which, by the way, is exactly what Al Gore did with his movie in 2006. He cited the paper by Naomi Rescues that said nearly a thousand scientists agree that this is a crisis. So we have a consensus. Now let’s get to work. And he had hoped that similar to what John Kerry did with the Swift Boat Veterans, that if you just ignore these people, maybe they’ll go away. Didn’t work for John Kerry and it hasn’t worked for Al Gore and the climate movement. Now, you know, they have really solidified their their position and they’re doing a lot to bog down the whole climate science process. 

So you’re saying don’t just speak the truth about these scientific input’s controversies. They’re not actually controversies when it comes to the, you know, the community of science scientists who deal with these issues. You’re saying don’t just speak the truth, but become an activist, fighting against the disinformation, you know, challenged. Can I call them cultural competitors rather than just cocooning yourself? You know, at the university and doing your research? 

I think you way you just said it is exactly right. Culture competitors. That’s a good term for it because it’s not about trying to suppress them or suppress them or anything like that. It’s not like we live in a country where we can send these people off to. Logic when they speak out against the mainstream or whatever. But it’s about competing with them in the open arena of communication, of ideas. And it means that in order to do that, there needs to be more focused effort. And one of the key variables, it’s very difficult in all this is the element of time. And so the science world has a tradition of moving very slowly sluggishly because science needs to be a profession that has a huge degree of accuracy. And it is all for naught if you if you start moving so fast that errors get made. In the research on science. But the problem that we have right now is that the communication environment, which is the second part of science, you know, there’s the doing, the science and the communicating of science, and that arena has changed drastically. Communications turn incredibly rapid now, and there are ways to deal with that sort of stuff. 

And so you say the way to deal with it isn’t just to tell people what science knows about the world, but so it’s so it’s not just teaching science to the public, but it’s about telling great stories about science, finding a hook, drawing the public in with the story. You hold up Carl Sagan really as the perfect example of this. Randi, I just spoke of the Carl Sagan day, along with James Randi and others in Florida and so many people there. Well, actually, they say it all the time that Carl Sagan drew them into the world of science, the world view that science gives us. And he’s even doing it all these years after his death. You’re calling for more Carl Sagan’s, right? 

Yeah. To a large extent, you know, and he wasn’t perfect. Nobody is. But he was pretty good guy. And in the book, the fourth chapter is Don’t Be So Unlikable. 

And Carl Sagan presented an incredibly likable image. And you never saw him going on rants and calling people names and using foul language and in these sorts of things. 

And you also never saw him kind of saying science is right and smart and therefore those people are dumb or idiots, et cetera. In other words, he had the audacity to suggest that science, this worldview was fun and good and and benefits everyone. It’s not just for the elite. 

Yeah. And I think he was was very open minded. You know, he did his best to study religions and give them the benefit of the doubt and was constantly, you know, all the way back. I remember reading The Dragon of Eden and and he was very well versed in religion and fluent and being able to talk about it and keep an open mind to it and not be so disparaging and completely insulting to them, which I think helped him develop the math. Following that, he got. And, you know, there had to be a lot of people early on that were teetering on which direction to go in their life, whether religion or or non religion. And we’re drawn in by him and the charisma, his voice. 

It almost sounded like you were going to say whether religion or science, as if that’s the dichotomy. 

And I think you pick up on that. 

Sure. And there’s the implication. There’s the implication in what you’re saying. There’s kind of an implied criticism of the new atheists. But guess what? I do not want to go off into that. I I’m just really interested in hearing you expound more on this storytelling aspect. You’re saying scientists don’t be such a scientist. You’re saying be a storyteller. 

Yeah. Be a storyteller and be an accurate storyteller. A person is able to tell really good stories and yet work within the truth and accuracy. And therein lies the challenge. And that’s why communication is in a lot of ways, extra hard and challenging for the science community, because you aren’t given that extra load advantage of not having to worry about accuracy in the truth. At the end of Flock of Dodos, I posed the question, who will be the voice of evolution in the future? Will it be the academics who are constrained by their blind obsession with the truth? Or will it be the PR firms that don’t feel any constraints? They can make up their stories as they go along. That makes it easier for them and it makes it more difficult and challenging for the science world. But the fact is, when you manage to tell a good story that is woven out of the truth and accuracy, that is so much more powerful than anything, it just takes extra effort to get there. And that’s where the science organizations come in. They have to have a better understanding of this and support this. 

I’d like to let our listeners know that you can get a copy of Don’t Be Such a Scientist talking substance in an age of style through our website. Point of inquiry dork. So, Randy, what’s the first step in changing the way we communicate science by telling a good story? You know, you could almost argue that all scientists should just drop everything, go to film school. 

Oh, God. Don’t to that, please. I’ve been there. I can warn them all off. Stay away. 

No, I think the starting point is perhaps with language. I have pointed out in the book that, for starters, the template for a scientific paper is built around three ACT structure and every beginning level student should be told that from day one. Do you realize how much you have in common with the humanities here? 

You’re saying science papers are like screenplays. 

They are like screenplays. They’re built in three ACT structure. There are three major parts to it. There’s the first act, which is the introduction and a good well written science paper finishes the introduction by bringing it all to a synthesis and synthesizing the jumping off point, which is the question that is posed. And you lay out all the exposition there in your introduction and eventually that brings you to, you know, given that we know all this from past research, that leads us to this question, why does this and this happen? And that sets you up then for in order to find out, let’s do an experiment. The second act is the methods and the results. That’s the very objective part that is not filled with any interpretation. It’s just here’s what was was done. Here’s what happened. And that’s what happens in your story. Basically, as you know, your story is all the action that’s happened in the second act and then the third act is the discussion. And just like the synthesis in the third act of a of a play, that’s where it’s all brought together and synthesized. And in the same way that Sylvester Stallone stands up and gives a long speech at the end of Rambo, the scientist stands up and third in the in the discussion section and gives their long speech about this is what I think it all means when we put this bunch of data that we’ve just collected into the bigger picture here. It’s all the same basic dynamics. Humans are preprogramed to receive information and it’s very structured manner and what storytelling is about a lot. It’s about pounding, you know, square pegs into round holes and you go out and gather all the information and it ends up being a big square peg. And then in the editing process, it’s up to you to hone that thing into a cylinder that is going to slide into these round holes that people have in their heads that are ready to receive well told stories. And if you fail to hone it properly, if you still just got this rectangular square peg and you start pounding into people’s heads and it’s not a very pleasant experience and I’ve got to go to a science meeting and listen to some bad talks. And you realize there’s somebody up there that just didn’t put in enough effort to to make us around Peg. That can slide into my head. That may sound off with simplistic, but it it’s kind of like that. 

So, Randy, if the ways that scientists structure their papers, their arguments is so similar to how we tell stories. Why doesn’t it come more naturally for scientists to tell the story of science? 

Because no one there’s there’s no priority set on good storytelling. And there is a basic ethic that is developed that the only thing that matters is accuracy. 

And we would prefer that you were going to go ahead and give you the benefit of the doubt and let you tell a bad story so long as you make sure that everything is super accurate there. 

You’re implying the accuracy should be less important than the story. 

No, no, no, no. Accuracy always. And I’ve said this repeatedly in the talks, and it’s written verbatim on page 111 of the book. 

You know, I’ve never seen anything short of hundred percent accuracy. 

Now, it sounds like you have that, you know, page 111 memorized because you’ve had this charge leveled against you so many times. 

Oh, yes. Well, it’s come up twice this year. Once you and a friend listen to a talk that I gave. That was put onto items which shocked me there. But one of my old science buddy said, it sounds like you’re advocating bending the science to tell a better story. 

Right. Engaging in spin or P.R. and not just telling the truth. 

That’s right. Exactly. And I went back and listened that talk. And sure enough, in the talk, I said I would never support anything short of a percent accuracy than the exact same thing happened in September when the New Scientist reviewed the book and the guy writing the review said the same thing, that Olson advises bending the facts. And so I wrote a letter to the editor. They published their, you know, making that clear. But it’s not like these people are evil. It’s very much it’s like a little learning exercise here, because what it’s telling us is the very essence of the subtitle, the book Difference in Substance and Style. It’s saying that I’ve I’m speaking and writing a book in which the substance makes it perfectly clear that I’m advocating higher percent accuracy. But the style through which I’m delivering this, using humor, using storytelling and using a flippant attitude is sending a different signal. And that’s what these people are picking up on. And they’re ignoring the substance of what’s in the book. You know, I don’t care what he said about our present accuracy. The signal I’m getting from this guy is that he says we should just play loose and crazy with the facts. 

Yeah, well, you just said flippant attitude. You know, that that suggests that scientists don’t only be accurate, but stop being stuffy about your accuracy. Be flip and be lighthearted, be jovial, be more casual with the truth is the implication when you talk about a flippant attitude. 

Well, you know that the perfect comparison is to look at The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Those are both examples in which they are very flippant. And the substance of what they present, you know, seems very silly on the surface. And yet, why are they winning so many awards, Peabody Awards and things like that? Because the fact is behind the scenes, they’ve got very serious writers who are there doing real journalism, just dressed up as comedy. That’s exactly right. Exactly. And there is your divide between substance and style. And they’re communicating a very serious message through style. It’s just a different matter that they’re doing it. 

So what are the real prospects here? You mentioned The Daily Show called Bear Rapport. Do you see scientists all splitting their time between doing research, you know, doing science on the one hand and on the other hand, learning how to be a standup comedian or a public speaker or how to cut video for YouTube? Maybe taking creative fiction classes or something? 

Well, for starters, it’s not like I’m pushing for much of anything. All these things are happening on their own. And one friend read my book and said, you know, you’re hardly advocating anything here. All you’re doing, just pointing to things that you see on the landscape. 

Well, I disagree with that. I see a definite roadmap that you’re saying, hey, scientists do thus. And so yet. 

Well, as a means of being part of this overall trend shift that is happening. And as I say, it’s happening, the blogosphere and the making of videos and putting them on YouTube, all those things are proliferating within the world of science. So these things are happening. They’re going to happen. It’s just a matter of the scientists being aware of this and not fighting it, just out of resistance to change. 

And to me, one of the most wonderful stories that I stuck in the book in there is the little anecdote about the Bluefly pioneer, about all the scientists, the 1970s, who only use black and white slides. And all of a sudden a few people started to innovate and use these blue slides with white text letters. And in the beginning, I cited a science meeting, everybody scoffing at who did this person think he is. And it’s 30 years later, and every one of those scientists now uses it in their PowerPoint and never thinks twice about it. These are shifts and norms and values. And again, the science world has our time with social dynamics at times. Mm hmm. 

Last question. When it gets down to it, you’re pointing out all these problems in the science community, how it’s kind of calcified. It’s, you know, not open to change the world of science. And I’m not talking the world of science, meaning the body of knowledge science discovers. But the culture, you know. Right. The community. Yeah. I wonder. As you’re focusing on all of that, if you’re not blaming scientists too much, isn’t it ultimately the responsibility of nonscientists or the scientifically illiterate public? I mean, to just go pick up a book on science, learned this stuff and stop blaming the teachers so much? I remember classes I had in college where I had really dry and humorless professors. You know, their lectures could hardly be called performance art. But still, I learned a ton. I think in those classes because I dug into the subject. So Randy, rather than saying I can’t learn science because the community of scientists don’t communicate it effectively. Shouldn’t we instead just be expecting more of the public when it comes to how much they understand and learn science? 

If this wasn’t a serious and important issue, then I would totally agree and say, you know, let’s tell the public they need to figure this stuff out better. But it’s a very important issue with a very short timeline. And there’s just not time to wait for the public to come around. And there’s no indicators that that’s going to happen anyhow. What is important, as I say, is this issue of the anti science attacks and the credibility of science well being undermined. And that’s not something that the public is going to rise up and somehow stop put an end to that. That’s something where the science world and I don’t put the, you know, the, quote, blame or whatever on the individual scientist in a laboratory doing their research. I put it with the leadership of the science where wherever that is, again, the science world seems to be led by all these gigantic committee driven things and facilitation. And there’s very little actual leadership that happens in the world of science. I think it’s part of the kind of some I anti-social dynamic that the science world has generally always had. 

Perfect that. Near the end of our interview, you raise such a such an important, interesting thing I want to continue talking about. Go on. I’m sorry. You know, anti-social trends in the science community now, that’s a that’s a whole other episode. 

Well, it is kind of part and parcel with the profession. And I don’t know that it’s a horrible thing. It just is. I mean, all you’ve got to do is go to a guy. I listen to my older brother, go to his law conferences. And the social dynamics there are completely different from a science meeting. And then I’ve been to a ton of film festivals, which are just drastically different from the social dynamics of any science meeting. 

Okay, well, you opened the door, so just let’s get into this a little. Tell me how it’s different. Is what science meetings are elitist and closed off an exclusivist and what law and film festivals are inclusive and fun. 

And I mean, draw the distinctions that the last law conference my older brother went to. They had a 24 hour poker game that ran that everybody at the conference took part in. 

I’ve never been to a science conference that where the organizers of the conference organized a 24 hour poker game or anything of that sort. 

It’s just there’s there’s a level of rationality and rational thought that comes with the world of science. And it’s not that it’s wrong or bad. I mean, they’re probably mentally hideous to take. And in fact, a lot of ma, you know, they wouldn’t play poker at this conference instead of actually going to talks and things like that among the lawyers. But it’s just a different world. And that’s the difference. And what’s disconcerting is when those differences become handicaps to the actual dynamics of the world of science. And I think at the core of it all, the thing that that does troubled me and I am concerned about is the idea of society in general disrespecting the voice of the voice of authority that comes from the science world. It comes from knowledge. And we’re getting to that point where more and more people and I hear it on the street from people about global warming more than anything else. I don’t care what the scientists say. They’re full of themselves. They’re just trying to feather their nests and raise more money. How did we get to such a point where there’s so much cynicism in the average person towards the science world? Mm hmm. 

Well, Randy Olson, your book suggests some ways to fix that. Even if you don’t consider it like a handbook, you’re just pointing out things. No, it is a handbook. If every scientists reads this, I think, and adopt some of the strategies you lay out, I think we’ll be better off. 

I mentioned in the book a little anecdote about when I worked with a casting director and asked all these veteran actors what was the very what’s the one acting course that taught them everything you need to know? And they all said there is no such thing. You need a bunch of different acting courses to learn all these different dimensions of the craft of acting. And it’s the same with communicating science. There are a number of different books and each one will give you different dimensions. Mine is particularly focused on style, but I encourage anybody who’s interested in science communication to be sure and read a whole suite of books because there are many different facets to it. 

Well, Randy, you said that like a person who’s not just in it for the pushing of your own book. So good onya you. And thank you for joining me on Point of Inquiry. 

OK. Well, it’s been great to be here. And always a good time to talk with you, B.J.. Thanks, Jim Underdown. 

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Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded from St. Louis, Missouri, Point of Inquiry’s music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael Quailing. Contributors to today’s show included Sarah Jordan and Debbie Goddard. I’m your host, DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.