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Don't Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style

3.73  ·  Rating details ·  600 ratings  ·  102 reviews
"You think too much!  You mother F@$#%&* think too much!  You're nothing but an arrogant, pointy headed intellectual -- I want you out of my classroom and off the premises in five minutes or I'm calling the police and having you arrested for trespassing." —Hollywood acting teacher to Randy Olson, former-scientist
After nearly a decade on the defensive, the world of science
Paperback, 216 pages
Published August 28th 2009 by Island Press
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Oct 24, 2010 rated it it was ok
Shelves: non-fiction
I have mixed feelings about this book. I am very glad exists. I believe it is enormously important for scientists to be able to communicate their ideas to the general public. However, within the scientific community there is little concern about science communication or knowledge about how to do it well. This book definitely fills a void and I respect it for that. I'm not convinced it does it well, though.

Olson give a series of suggestions along the lines of "tell a story" and "be likable" and a
Apr 16, 2013 rated it it was amazing
OK, here's the deal, while reading this book I realized that all too often I am SUCH a scientist!

This hit me like a ton of bricks the other night when my 13-year old daughter came in with a piece of cinnamon-roll cake that she'd made (she's actually quite the little cook). My wife was also in the room and said (strongly hinting to me) "Isn't this FANTASTIC!" A good dad, a good communicator, wouldn't have had to think things over and chimed right in, but I took a bite and my dumb old scientific b
Nov 09, 2010 rated it did not like it
I was extremely disappointed by this book. The author mentions people like Carl Sagan, but does not get into how they managed to combine scientific substance and style. From the subtitle and the cover blurbs, it seemed to me that that is exactly what this book was promising. Maybe it was my mistake to expect that but I would imagine many other potential readers would be thinking that too. The reviewers below agree that this book doesn't do that but they liked it anyway.

It does have a bunch of s
Thomas Edmund
Aug 01, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Taking a title from his ex wife’s admonishment Randy Olsen produces a book that is a must read (but likely to miss 1/3) by all scientists.

This book is a must read as it addresses a serious concern: that the general public is getting further and further away from accepting the information presented to them from scientists and academics, and as a result the political powers that be are responding less and less to science and more to populist input.

Certainly scientists are always going to be the ne
Jan 31, 2012 rated it really liked it

This book is annoyingly correct. Unfortunately there are many among us who enjoy being so cerebral, so literal minded, have resigned ourselves to being poor storytellers, and are not bothered by being classified as "unlikeable" by non-scientists. (Yes, I am talking about myself.) Why can't everyone just BE LOGICAL?

Since the general public has a problem being logical (there I go with the typical condescending tone of the scientist), the author offers some good tips on how to generalize a m
Sep 16, 2010 rated it it was ok
An enjoyable, quick read with some unique insight to offer. Olson seems to have a pretty good handle on what scientists are like. I'm not entirely sure that his personal journey from academia to Hollywood is the absolutely best vehicle for making the point he wants to make, but it works okay. Among the 170 pages, there are about 5 that are really valuable. Maybe it's worth reading the whole thing to get them, but I kind of wonder if it couldn't have been a shorter essay. I would have rated the b ...more
Jul 27, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Over the course of the last half century, the teaching ability of professors at Universities has declined to a point that when a student actually gets a good teacher as a professor, it is an unexpected surprise. Those of us that have worked in the university research environment know the focus of most professors is their research, while the education of the student is an unfortunate but necessary requirement that allows one to continue his/her research. Scientists have forgotten that they actual ...more
Danielle T
Feb 12, 2014 rated it liked it
This has been on my to-read list for ages, and now that it's semi-relevant to grad school goals, finally took it off my amazon wishlist. I watched Flock of Dodos during Darwin Week 2010; my review of that is here. Curiously, my opinions of his other work reflect what I got four years later in his book.

Dr. Olson argues that since we live in a world of short-attention spans, scientists need to learn to let go of some of the jargon and embrace subjective emotional/sexual/whatever appeal. Arouse th
D. Paul
Sep 07, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Although ostensibly aimed at scientists, “Don’t Be Such A Scientist” offers specific advice to anyone on communicating a message, particularly a complicated rational one, while at the same time chronicling Randy Olson’s transformation from tenured professor of Oceanography at the University of New Hampshire to struggling filmmaker on the mean and venal streets of Hollywood. High-minded and serious at times, hilarious and filled with pathos at others, Olson’s book is an inspiring, entertaining, a ...more
Ty Carlisle
Jul 27, 2009 rated it it was amazing
This book should be a paradigm shift for anyone who's interested in the fate of our little blue planet. Funnily written, with cute little anecdotal stories about the author's life dealing with scientists (including himself, the author points fun at his own mistakes as "such a scientist" including an hilarious story about making a fool of himself in front of Spike Lee). Yet the book doesn't simply poke fun, it also hammers home on some very interesting and timely messages about what everyone can ...more
Jan 22, 2012 rated it liked it
The basic ideas of this book are great, but I don't think the author needed a full book to explain himself. The author spent too much time talking about himself, instead of exploring interesting issues with science communication and film as an art-form. He also seemed pretty obsessed with making himself out to be so "cool" which really wasn't necessary. However, that said, I agree with his main premise, that scientists really need to re-think how they communicate to each other and to the general ...more
May 04, 2019 rated it did not like it
This entire book can be summed up in one quote: "So what's worse, to communicate inaccurately or not to communicate at all?".

Unfortunately, that sentence does not appear until page 105 - and the book doesn't end there.

Even if I were inclined to take communication advice from someone who uses the sentence "The audience no likey," without a trace of irony, this book was repetitive and self-aggrandizing to such an extent that I'm still not entirely sure it wasn't just an extended advertisement for
Susan Chambers
Sep 07, 2009 rated it really liked it
A clear and well told examination of the cultural gap between scientists and the entertainment industry.
Feb 14, 2013 rated it it was amazing
"Excellent! A fun easy read, and good advice/ideas for scientists trying to communicate with regular people."
Fahim Khan
Mar 29, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: science
It was not too long ago while I was struggling to understand a very basic journal written on stem cell culture. The language was so complex and non-friendly that I had to find some alternative materials for learning about it. And guess what! There are very few articles which are user friendly and easy to understand.
Now. there might be some reasons behind this. I can say I am a bad learner and reader. That has the higher probability as I hardly read any journals. But if I say, scientists are ver
Feb 10, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Bringing science to the masses

Science has a problem: its chief advocates and interpreters are scientists. As smart, accurate and disciplined as they may be, they are generally ill-equipped to share their work in a compelling way with others unaccustomed to science-speak. That's the message of Randy Olson, scientist-turned-filmmaker, who draws off his experiences as a marine biologist and Hollywood filmmaker to illuminate the differences in the needs and expectations of scientific specialists and
Oct 10, 2019 rated it did not like it
In a nutshell: Be sexy and emotional and your problems will dwindle, as these are the least common denominators of communication. This is the exact type of subjective social construct that fosters conflict, anxeity and false validation while rewarding irrationality and a lack of introspective ability. Not surprising coming from the film industry mindset. The entire premise is "argumentum ad populum". Mankind's tangible progress is rooted completely in logic and reason, as logic and reason are ma ...more
Debra Daniels-zeller
Feb 01, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, writing
This was an interesting book about why scientists have a hard time connecting with audiences, but most of the information overlaps with Randy Olson's other book so it was sometimes hard to keep reading as it didn't really cover new territory for me. What I liked: when Olson brought up his years writing for South Park and his ABT (and, but, therefore) story structure and when Olson examined Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign for narrative drive. It made me immediately look at all the candidates in t ...more
May 07, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Don't take it too close to heart. Scientists have many remarkable characteristics that describe them, I as a biology undergrad identify with most of those characteristics, and yet, I found myself loving the fact of being called out on different attitudes that made me realise I take myself too seriously when it comes to science. I really recommend reading this book, not because it teaches one to not be too intense as a scientist but it teaches basic communication skills that we sometimes overlook ...more
Nov 26, 2017 rated it it was ok
According to Goodreads, 2 stars means a book is "ok." That's what this book was. It wasn't awful, but I probably could have done without reading it.
Perhaps the problem is that I approached this book hoping to learn something about science communication in general, but instead I learned more about film-making. Also, the author makes some very broad generalizations and is unorganized in his writing. However, he does also make some worthwhile points. Unfortunately, they were points that I was alre
Elena Fryer
Dec 30, 2017 rated it really liked it
I found this very helpful. I work give science and history programs for the public as a part of my job. While I am not educated as a scientist, I realized reading this book that I very much have a scientist's brain. The information in this book will help me give better presentations.

Considering that there is a segment of the population seems to have great disdain and disbelief of scientists, the topic of how scientists can better communicate is an important and current topic.
Jul 17, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Ironically, I don't like Randy Olson's delivery (dare I say style), but the substance was invaluable. He presents excellent and easy-to-understand frameworks to assist in crafting science stories. A lot of self-promotion and repetition, but the message sticks and makes sense.

The elevator pitch I would give this book is "using Hollywood techniques to tell science stories".
Daniel Watkins
Dec 14, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: science
It’s a pretty quick read. Entertaining. I’ll send it as a former PhD scientist and tenured professor who changed careers and became a filmmaker. He brings a lot of insights from the filmmaking world. I thought his insights that film is a better tool for motivation and for instruction was useful. I wouldn’t call it a life-changing read but I did find it useful and recommend it.
Jennifer Holmes
Although passionate about his subject, Olson veers into annoying (ironic given one of the chapters is titled “Don’t Be So Unlikeable) while exhorting scientists to make science human. I would recommend starting with Houston, We Have A Narrative, part of the Chicago Guides series, for an introduction to Olson’s ABT (and, but, therefore) narrative template.
The Inquisitive Biologist
An irreverent and amusing look at science communication from a Hollywood-turned marine biologist, Don't Be Such a Scientist is chock-full of useful nuggets and interesting ideas. See my full review at ...more
Heidi Gardner
Nov 22, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This should be required reading for every scientist - from undergraduate student to Professor. Hugely insightful, pragmatic and honest, I’m looking forward to badgering my colleagues into reading this. It has got me really excited to go to work tomorrow.
Larry Perez
Apr 29, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Olson makes a passionate, well-informed plea for all scientists to become "bilingual" in speaking among their professional circles and general audiences. The combination of personal anecdotes, potent revelations, and good humor makes this an engaging, fun read!
Aug 29, 2017 rated it really liked it
Every scientist (or applied scientist, mathematician, technologist, etc.) who cares about communicating with, relating to, or influencing the rest of the world should give this a try.
Nov 01, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: science
This is a good introduction to the importance of and some good theory of communication, especially targeted towards scientists.
Jun 07, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I received an electronic copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley.

The original Star Trek and its reboot delighted in the contrast between the stoic, logical Spock and passionate, instinct-driven Kirk or McCoy. Not long before that, over fifty years ago, C.P. Snow gave his famous lecture on "The Two Cultures" and the divisions between Science and the Arts, providing voice to sentiments that existed long before then. So, the topics of Olson's book aren't exactly new. But they are still necess
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Is this Book Mean to Scientists? 2 22 Jul 27, 2009 07:44PM  

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“This is the dilemma of science-think and yet again a situation in which scientists simply shouldn't be such scientists. Bring in the professionals, and trust them when they tell you to invest in communication. It may be frustrating and seem like a frivolous waste of resources, but what's the alternative strategy—to assume that people are rational, thinking beings? There's a famous quote by Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, who heard a woman shout to him that all the thinking people of America were with him. He replied, “That's not going to be enough, Madam; I need a majority of the public.” 0 likes
“Last week I sat through a day of environmental talks. You know what I remember from that entire day? Only one thing-the story a guy told about how he was sitting on an airplane and the lady next to him asked for cream for her coffee, but when they brought her the small plastic containers of cream, she said, "No thanks; the plastic isn't biodegradable." And he thought to himself, "I can hardly hear her over the jet engines that are burning up fifty gazillion barrels of fuel a minute, and she's worried about a thimble-sized piece of plastic?"
That's all I remember from that day. Why is that? It's the power of a well-told story that is also very specific. Stories that are full of vague generalizations are weak. Specifics give them strength.”
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