Randy Olson Arouses Me

Does this look like a scientist?

It’s my friend Randy Olson.

He’s an avid surfer but he’s better known as Randy-the-scientist-turned-Hollywood-producer. His films Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy and Flock of Dodos are “must see flicks”.

Here’s Occam with a review of Olson’s new book, Don’t Be Such A Scientist!

Yes, just like jelly donuts, Super Bowl-winning touchdown drives, and this odd, recurring dream I have of Neil Degrasse Tyson in a bathrobe repeating the words “dark matter,” Randy Olson gets me going where it counts.

Why am I admitting this? you ask. How can this be so? you wonder. Who is Randy Olson, is he single, and what’s his address? you are thinking. Randy came to prominence with his documentary Flock of Dodos, on the evolution/intelligent design debate. He has the unique pedigree of being perhaps the only tenured science professor in history to resign from such a cushy post, move to LA, and enroll in film school. Randy fashions himself an expert on communicating science to the general public and has recently written Don’t Be Such a Scientist, chastising the profession for its shortcomings in communications and suggesting how scientists can be better at this task.

Yesterday, New Scientist published this review of Olson’s book calling it “Engaging and timely”.  RealClimate.org says it’s “a MUST read” and popular blogger PZ Meyers adds “there are lessons worth learning” in this book.

Randy brings the thinking of story-telling and communication he learned in Hollywood to this book and notes that the four organs of mass communication are the head, heart, gut and the “lower organs.” It’s these lower organs that Randy says need to be aroused for people to truly pay attention, and while he notes they are a universal driving force, I’m probably not alone in wondering how much the scientists who I’ve come across understand about them. Of course, since this is science, instead of speculating about this I would have to do an experiment and fortunately (again, given the scientists that I know), in the interest of proper research this would have to be a double blind experiment (whew). Although I could recruit from this pool of scientists, which is just brimming with talent, I think you’d agree. Hmm…I see an untoward spin on the Milgram experiments in my near future…

Scientists can get aroused, of course, as evidenced by 1. their passionate determination to drive cross-country in, uh, less-than-ideal circumstances (in a diaper, no less); 2. their study of sexual topics, such as these observations that the voice of a woman can make a…er, stem grow faster; and 3. this out-of-character and candid excerpt from Isaac Newton’s diary: “Upon its fall the apple dideth so rolleth on the ground as to beckon me close to it…its curves and sheen causeth the rising of a quizzical feeling inside mine body…by the throne of King Charles it was softeth to the touch! And the smell…the soft, feminine smell….Had my gout not been so enflamethed I would have taken that ripe, red fruit home with me that instant on the mere principia of it.”

What Randy wants scientists to do is to take this ability to get excited about their own work and turn it into effective communication, arousing the public about science as well. He spends a lot of the book admonishing scientists for being bad at this, with some cute Hollywood anecdotes thrown in. Curiously, he strongly attacks scientists’ proclivity to condescend and alienate (even when clearly in the right) without once giving explanation to his documentary title, Flock of Dodos, which seems to imply those in support of intelligent design are idiots. Further, while mocking a list of interview tips from the Union of Concerned Scientists to its membership for being overly negative, his own chapter titles and themes are a bit biting: Don’t be this…don’t be that… He does end with a chapter on what scientists can be, which is the voice of science in a positive, effective manner.

But “arouse and fulfill” is Randy’s theme and he does a good job of that…he aroused this reader to be concerned about the pitfalls and easy mistakes that those of us who try to communicate about science make; he fulfilled by offering examples and anecdotes on how to be better and by providing a framework for what effective communication can look like (he also fulfills with a sexually itemized photo of a certain actor-governor!). Most science communicators will take something useful away from this read. In fact, we can all put this book down and be motivated to deliver that talk, create that powerpoint, give that interview, even drive cross country to passionately reconnect with a loved one/astronaut (note to self: pack the Pampers).


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