Book [P]review: For The Scientist

By Carl Zimmer | August 11, 2009 12:44 am

On August 11, 1999–ten years ago tomorrow–the State Board of Education in Kansas voted to take evolution out of the state’s science curriculum.

This came as quite a shock to a lot of biologists I spoke to at the time. A lot of them couldn’t understand how it have happened. Some decided to get together to plan what to do in response. With lightning-fast reflexes, a meeting was arranged over a year later. Representatives from major scientific societies gathered to make a plan. They invited a number of other people to join them. I was one. And, frankly, I felt like I was observing a meeting of representatives of tribes from some New Guinea highland forest, who were following rules and speaking a language that I could not begin to understand. At the end of the meeting, these dozens of scientists made a momentous decision. They would…wait for it…go back to their societies and suggest that they post on their web site a statement that evolution is good science.

I sat there, gob-smacked, wondering exactly how many people actually visit, say, the American Phytopathological Society. And yet everyone at the meeting seemed so happy, so excited that they had really done something–that they had let the public know just where they stand.

The experience was a stunning lesson for me about what scientists think is effective communication. And while some of that spirit still survives today, a lot has changed–at least based on my highly non-scientific intuition. Many scientists have been thinking about what they can do in their interactions with the media to get a better sense of their science across. Many, fed up with what they consider to be a sadly broken media machine, have taken matters into their own hands with blogs.

Three books are coming out this year directed at these scientists. Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future, by my fellow Discobloggers Sheril Kirshenbaum and Chris Mooney, was the first. I talked to Chris about the book in this Bloggingheads talk. Cornelia Dean of the New York Times is publishing another, called Am I Making Myself Clear?: A Scientist’s Guide to Talking to the Public. It’s a lean, straightforward tour of the media landscape, led by a journalist who has written about science for many years.

The third is by a scientists–but it’s called Don’t Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style. The author is Randy Olson, a biologist who headed to Hollywood. Back in 2006, I wrote about his documentary, Flock of Dodos–which was his own response to the events in Kansas. Rather than post a statement on a web site, Olson made a funny movie that not only demonstrated the flim-flammery of creationists, but also showed how dismally evolutionary biologists communicated to those beyond their guild.

In his book, Olson draws on his own experience making movies to offer some advice to his fellow scientists on how to tell their story, and to get that story heard. Olson doesn’t want scientists to stop being scientists, but he does urge them to pay more attention to what they say and how they can say it best:

By now you may be thinking, “What’s this guy got against intellectuals? He’s calling them brainiacs and eggheads.” Well, I spent six wonderful years at Harvard University completing my doctorate, and I’ll take the intellectuals any day. But still, it would be nice if they could just take a little bit of the edge off their more extreme characteristics. It’s like asking football players not to wear their cleats in the house. You’re not asking them not to be football players, only to use their specific skills in the right place.

You can find out more at the book’s web site.


Comments (17)

  1. James



    Carl: Thanks–no apologies necessary. I’ve fixed it. (That was my mistake, by the way, not Olson’s.)

  2. ARJ

    There is no reason to expect those working in complex subjects like science or economics to also be good communicators to a lay audience… and most are not. That is one reason journalists and freelance writers exist, as imperfect as they may be. There is always plenty of good available material out there for anyone wishing to attain basic scientific literacy. Those who remain scientifically illiterate do so by choice, (although the education system doesn’t always help the cause). ‘You can lead a horse to water but… ‘

  3. ERV

    Randy lost his scientific street-cred with his bizarre response to solicited reviews of ‘Sizzle’. Not interested in communication advice from someone who had a communication freak-out/melt-down.

    However I will repeat the positive thing I had to say about ‘Sizzle’, which I thought Randy should have emphasized: Scientists talk ‘egg-headdy’ to journalists/media, and talk about science ‘normally’ to laypeople directly. Probably should keep that ‘normal’, conversational tone with everyone except your scientific peers.

    Howeverrrrr, conversations are a two-way street. Ive given presentations where I thought I gave simple, easy to understand explanations, only to have people tell me later that they didnt get it. AAARRRRGGG!! Ask questions!! In a million years I wont get offended if someone says “Chick, you so lost me…” And sometimes there is another lay person in the audience who once didnt get it, but found a neat analogy or parable that helped that they can share– LOVE THAT!

  4. Wonder if a required module should be added to PhD programs that covers how to communicate scientific findings, mechanisms and processes effectively to the public? (Or do some already have this?) Would be best if the university could cross over and have someone from the J-schools teaching it, or a professional science journalist (if there are any left in the future). Even though, as ARJ points out, many may not have a natural bent for communications at least such a module would give scientists insight into the process of science reporting, the landscape of mass media and the typical structure of news articles.

  5. I do wonder whether there is too much of an emphasis on public understanding of certain aspects of science in contrast to others. For example what proportion of the public understands the basics of quantum mechanics – or even special or general relativity? What percentage understands the basics of aerodynamics that explains how a jumbo jet can fly? Quite a lot of science and engineering is simply accepted – or learned on a need to know basis (even by scientists themselves when it comes to other scientific disciplines). I would even suspect that evolution – the main topic of conversation in these cases, is understood (although not accepted) at a basic level by far more people at large compared to important aspects of physics. The proportion of people who don’t accept evolution for purely information (rather than religious dogma) reasons, I would suspect, is tiny.

  6. johnk

    One would think, on the surface, that a scientist speaking to a large public audience would be relaxed and feel comfortable explaining things at a lay level — perhaps like describing science to a neighbor or friend.

    But another factor is at work. A scientist speaking to an unseen audience may be cowed by the unseen audience. The speaker may think, “What if the leaders of my field also see this and think I’m oversimplifying or underplaying their work? The safe thing is to over-qualify findings, to hedge my conclusions and make things complicated. To speak as I speak to scientists.”

  7. RBH

    johnk wrote

    One would think, on the surface, that a scientist speaking to a large public audience would be relaxed and feel comfortable explaining things at a lay level — perhaps like describing science to a neighbor or friend.

    In fact, that’s very hard to do. I taught at a good undergraduate liberal arts college for 20 years, and I think I have a handle now on how to talk with lay people — intro students, in effect. But I have to say some lectures my first few years of teaching were pretty disastrous.

    I’ve told beginning profs that the best training I had for teaching was involvement in drama when I was an undergrad (my roommate for a year was a drama major).

  8. Journalists are fine. It’s the News Editors you have to worry about. Blogs are great because the journalist can communicate directly with the audience without a News Editor trying to muscle in and put their own spin on things.

  9. fasteddie

    One of my favorite weekly rituals is listening to NPR’s Science Friday. Although the show’s producers probably go out of their way to find scientists who have at least rudimentary communication skills, it’s alarming how often the scientists interviewed slip deep into jargon with little or no excitement in their voice. There’s no reason to think anyone surfing the radio dial at that momemt would stop on NPR to listen to what amounts to the auditory equivalent of dental work.

  10. Adrian

    The quote from Randy Olson to me sums up the issue here.

    “It’s like asking football players not to wear their cleats in the house. You’re not asking them not to be football players, only to use their specific skills in the right place.”

    To me this is not a great analogy. You would still expect football players at home to act like football players: watching their diet, exercising, taking an interest in their opponents’ games and so on. Scientists are no different. They don’t bring their gear home. They don’t bring their experiments home. But they do bring home their questioning and inquiring world-view, their probabilistic view of the world. Because they ARE scientists.

    Also, scientists talking to lay people or in interviews are not at home. They are working. As scientists. It’s like saying to the football players not to be so ‘footbally’ when they go along to school training sessions to interact with the kids.

  11. Jdhuey

    I have a somewhat contrarian viewpoint: I think science communicators in the mainstream popular medium – newspapers and TV – have dumbed down the level of discourse too much. When I see so-called science shows on TV, there is such an emphasis on making the material accessible that all the substance is just gone. I don’t know how many shows I started to watch but got bored with because they kept going over the same material again and again (I assume they did this to stretch out the material to fill up an hour and thinking that stupid TV watchers can’t remember any facts over the commercial breaks.)

  12. Helioprogenus

    As far as as the book “Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future”, the premise is fraught with irresponsible journalism, and less than effective strategy. Apparently, Kirshenbaum and Mooney seem to think that the problem with effective science communication has a lot to do with “new atheists” driving the potentially science curious away with their rational arguments against religion, and rather critical analysis of its role in human society. Basically, they insist that the problem is atheism, and not the religious institutions that maintain an irrational dogmatic belief structure amongst their adherents. The blame for the lack of science education has more to do with lack of funding, and less with militant atheists driving people away. Those who have developed empirical reasoning, and critical thinking skills will embrace non-religious concepts, regardless of the possible negative perception of the public face of non-believers. Mooney and Kirschenbaum would love to silence criticism and dissent within the scientific community, and ultimately treat public science with kid-gloves. Basically, framing an argument that entails coddling irrational thoughts, and imaginary beliefs to perhaps draw a few curious individuals towards a love of science.

    Carl, I realize since you’re both Discover blogs, you feel a need to respectfully refuse to criticize your misguided colleagues at The Intersection, but someone must be the voice of reason against what seems to be a terrible premise.

    The truth is that only through an expanded scientific literacy program, both for the young, and even perhaps those who have moved beyond their schooling, will we maintain a high standard for critical thinking and reasoning. The abandonment of religion is just a byproduct of scientific understanding. Although there are those whose fears of just such a personal revelation prevent them from exploring their scientific curiosity, it should not limit the different varieties of communication by scientists to the public. As long as religious institutions and their leaders continue to voice their false rhetoric, some have to stand up and challenge those fervently misguided and probably disingenuous equivocations.

  13. Well… I mean, sure. By all means, include more education and incentives for scientists to communicate their work better. It’s just generally good, makes people better rounded, will help enormously for those who follow non-traditional career paths, and will probably aid at the margins for communicating science to non-scientists.

    But as has been endlessly pointed out, there are entire television stations dedicated to promoting science, and every bookstore has shelves and shelves of the stuff. And there’s the entire frickin’ internet chock full of science if you want to read it. The issue isn’t that scientists aren’t pushing the information out, and making postdocs sound 10% less dorky when talking about their work just isn’t going to result in any ginormous change.

    I mean, look at the birther nonsense and the death panel stuff. There are constituencies who find it congenial to have large numbers of people passionately believe satisfingly outraging nonsense. People aren’t signing up for this stuff because the people who issue birth certificates are talkin’ all egghead-ese about this stuff. When its mentioned that most senior citizens in the US are already covered by a single payer system and the US hasn’t become a soylent-green dystopia full of death panels and mandatory euthenasia, it’s not that they’re speakin’ all technical mumbo-jumbo.

  14. You wrote: “On August 11, 1999–ten years ago tomorrow–the State Board of Education in Kansas voted to take evolution out of the state’s science curriculum.”

    I am a History of Science researcher interested on scientific controversies who has read the KBOE’s standards, and couldn’t find in that document that they had “voted to take evolution out of the state’s science curriculum.” As a matter of fact, they increased the coverage of evolution in that educational document.


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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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