the audience, once more: “don’t be such a scientist”

Spotted on the excellent WUNC (North Carolina public radio) this afternoon in the “Talk of the Nations” show: an interview  of Randy Olson on his book “don’t be such a scientist. ” The talk is titled “explaining science with substance…and style.”

olsonRandy Olson is a former marine biologist from the university of New Hampshire turned into a film maker. In the bits of the interview I got in my car, I understood that he’s been sitting in hollywood acting, performing and/or directing classes for several years and that he subsequently realized how this kind of formation would be useful for scholars.

Among the subjects tackled  during the fifteen minutes I was listening

-his fellow scientists’ reaction: “Olson is saying that we should abandon part of our scientific accuracy for the sake of communicability, that’s a shame.” The author retorts that he of course doesn’t say so, and that it is possible to reach 100% “accuracy” (that’s word used in the talk) while presenting result is a more “sexy”/appealing/”funny” ways

-as a former member of a community where scientific expertise deals with hot current issues (namely climate change), he constrast two documentary on this subject, one made by scientist whose title I couldn’t catch and Al Gore’s “An Unconvenient Truth,” of which he says no scientist was involved in. The inattention for the former and the success of the later calls for a reexamination of how scientists communicate, and  also  part of scientific inner culture. All the problem is which film would you prefer to have done: the accurate unknown or the unscientific successful one.  I guess similar questions may have been raised after Sylvia Nasar issued “A beautiful Mind” and have it turned into a Hollywood blockbuster, although I was not yet interested in
HET and therefore have no idea of the discussion raised by the book in our community.

-a comparison of the situation some scientists currently found themselves and the communication issues faced by the military a few years ago in Irak. The comparison appeals to me (with all its limitations), not only because economists may face a crisis situation today in which they prove unable to react to the attacks of those, insiders or oustiders, willing to change the contents and methods of their science, but because I know from private experience how the military in some countries are concerned with communication and are having at least some basic seminars on how to talk to journalists in the ground in periods of crisis (whatever the results).

-a reference to the new media scientists can afford on the web (twitter, blogs). He doesn”t see scientists as understanding the benefits they can draw from such opportunity. I’m not sure this would apply to the economists community.

All in all, I have no idea about the quality of the book, and this is merely a sketchy account of a sketch of an interview. And I haven’t checked on the reactions of the scientific community before writing the post. But since I don’t how long the podcast of the interview will stay online, better give the information the sooner.

Here is the page of the interview, where you can listen to it, and here is the podcast homepage (it is not on yet). Have a good ride.

One thought on “the audience, once more: “don’t be such a scientist”

  1. I like the message of the post, and will have a look at the book, as I do agree completely with the sentiment here. There is nothing wrong with being clear, interesting and even entertaining when giving talks at a conference or communicating your research. We have 20 minutes at best, or 30 seconds at worst to tell people why what we do is exciting, so everything goes.

    A look back at people like Milton Friedman or Carl Sagan shows how good public communication can be a great assistant both in getting your ideas across, and in getting the general public interested in your subject. Robert Heilbrohner may have done more for HET with the Worldly Philosophers than any of his other excellent academic contributions…

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