Book Review: Don’t Be Such a Scientist

Published by MNA on

By Grant Steves

Photo of Grant in suit and tie.

Minnesota Atheists does not identify as a proselytizing organization. However, we do believe in informing and educating the community about atheism. Many atheists would benefit from the book, Don’t Be Such a Scientist by Randy Olson. He has been a professor of marine biology who left to pursue a career in film making. In his pursuit of a film career, he has helped to make science more accessible to those who have no science background and to those who need to communicate more successfully to that audience of uninformed.

Olson starts his book with ‘the four organ theory of commenting: your head, your heart, your gut, and your sex organs. In books on persuasion, they discuss these areas, but the terms they used are more academic. He contends, as a scientist, that science is not successfully communicated because it emphasizes the head or a cerebral approach.  

Being cerebral is a problem when communicating with most people outside the academic setting; Olson would say that as you survey your audience very few respond from the ‘head.’ The cerebral audience thinks before it acts.  In fact, their inability to communicate broadly is due to the narrowness of their style. An academic or head communication will appeal to less than twenty percent of an audience.  

The second audience described is ‘heart.’ They respond to emotional appeal. They are prone to sentimentality and love themes. Belief for them is created from how they feel more than from how they think. Religious conversion and belief are most often generated from this appeal. We fear death and punishment, so we convert to a religion that promises to help us avoid either.  However, no evidence is offered.  

A third audience responds to ‘gut’ level appeals. Gut level is the use of humor and intuition. The appeals that work are aimed at being irrational more often than rational. Logic does not necessarily persuade them. This audience often presents a contradiction and is impulsive and spontaneous in their responses. Their motto might be, ‘just do it.’ Their reactions are difficult to know and understand.  

The fourth audience was identified with ‘sex organs.’ They do not respond to logic and are driven by the irrational.  

What Olson wants the scientist to do is address all of these audiences and use techniques that appeal more. What most scientists lack in their presentation is spontaneity. A cerebral communicator needs the ability to respond without pondering and to move from focusing only on substance to appreciating and using style.  

In conversation the scientist needs to listen more and think less. Be present to that other person and respond with spontaneity and not with a prepared agenda. Become a teller of stories that engage the audience. Scientists need to allow poetry to be a part of who they are and not be literal minded.  

Scientists become more approachable and likable when they leave their lab coats for a more casual appearance.  

An audience will respond to the style of spontaneity over the drudgery of listening to the style of pedantry.

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