Randy Olson - Don’t Be Such a Scientist

October 23, 2009

Randy Olson is a marine biologist and filmmaker who holds a PhD in biology from Harvard University. A graduate of the U.S.C. Cinema School in 1997, he wrote and directed the movies Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus, and Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy. His new book is Don't Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style.

In this interview with D.J. Grothe, Randy Olson discusses his background as a Harvard-trained scientist and tenured professor and why he changed careers to become a filmmaker. He explains the differences between science education and science communication. He recounts the social changes, beginning in the 1980's, that have harmed science education and the communication of science to the public. He describes the ways that filmmaking is ideal for public science advocacy, and how his films, such as Flock of Dodos, have unexpectedly led to further public engagement with the scientific community. He emphasizes the role of storytelling as the means to best communicate science to the public, and describes how scientific papers are like screenplays.

He talks about the Daily Show and the Colbert Report as examples of how serious issues, including scientific controversies, can be communicated to the public in entertaining and engaging ways. He talks about how Stephen J. Gould and Carl Sagan exemplified ways to avoid being "such a scientist," by arousing interest and by being likable. He addresses the stereotypes of scientists as being humorless, stuffy and too literal. He describes the reaction his book has received from the science community. He criticizes the National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science for their disinterest in science activism. He contrasts the community of scientists with other professional learned societies, such as within law or medicine. He examines the responsibility of the public to learn science even despite how effective scientists are at communicating it. And he explores the role of increasingly mainstream anti-science movements in the public's misunderstanding of climate research, evolution, and vaccinations.

Books Mentioned in This Episode:

Related Episodes

Chris Mooney - Unscientific America
October 9, 2009

Comments from the CFI Forums

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Haven’t listened to the podcast yet, but I love Olson :)

for anyone who hasn’t seen “Flock of Dodos” yet, do.  It’s interesting/entertaining and refreshingly lacking in stridency…....oh, and his mother, Muffy Moose stars in it! (yes, that’s actually the name she goes by:)  she even has a website:

Muffy Moose Memo


Posted on Dec 06, 2009 at 12:50am by Axegrrl Comment #1



typo in URL

I agree with Axegrrl—we are getting this book for Xmas.
Chris Mooney mentioned it in his interview also “sorry am I making myself clear” or something like that…

Posted on Dec 06, 2009 at 11:20am by Jackson Comment #2

I haven’t seen or read any of Olson’s work yet but I have heard him interviewed several times now.  Maybe I’m exceptionally thick but I just don’t get him.  His thing seems to be that some ways of communicating are more effective than others and we’ll never get through to creationists, climate change deniers, anti-science forces, etc. by hitting them over the head with arrogant science messages.  And how does he communicate this?  With arrogant communications theory messages!  He seems to be hitting scientists over the head with how poorly they are communicating in exactly the same way as he is railing against.  Maybe that’s an intentional technique?  Maybe it’s just me.

Posted on Dec 07, 2009 at 7:32am by the PC apeman Comment #3

Anyone ever try Toastmasters Speaking clubs? There are many throughout the world.

I met my wife in Toastmasters 35 years ago and sure recommend it for teaching people how to communicate better. (Check out Toastmasters.org to find a club near you.)

I sure wish more people were more at ease with public speaking, with making their points in a friendly fashion, but also were more able to be more forceful as needed.

I’m not sure whether Groethe has ever had scientists/Toastmasters on his excellent show, but he may want to think about it. I’d imagine at least some of the people on his show were in Toastmasters at one time.



Posted on Dec 07, 2009 at 7:52pm by Caleb Comment #4

..... He addresses the stereotypes of scientists as being humorless, stuffy and too literal.

As I listened to the interview, I was struck by the example of Richard Feynman.  Feynman stated emphatically that a commitment to truth was essential and that scientists needed to bend over backwards to look for gaps in the data or in their logic.  So in this way he was the “bad example” Randy Olsen is using.  On the other hand, he was an enthusiast who COULD tell a story, hook the audience, and communicate.  He dominated the Challenger commission, and gave many clear and educational public lectures as well as lectures in teaching.  His 1974 commencement address at Caltech is one of the few quoted commencement addresses you will come across.

So Randy is not 100% correct—- you do not have to choose between being a “scientist” and a “communicator”—some are both. But few of us are so gifted.

Carl Sagan is another…

Posted on Dec 09, 2009 at 4:00am by Jackson Comment #5

Listened to this one today while on the road - what Olson says parallels my own experience in several fields.  Technical knowledge is often wasted, or at least used very ineffectively, when it isn’t communicated well to the lay audiences who either need to use it or foot the bill for further research, etc.

Surely this is all the more so in the cases of climate change and anti-science religious propaganda, in which well-organized and wealthy institutions have incentive to actively suppress or distort the truth. 
Not that those matters are of any concern to humanity, of course. :gulp:

Looking forward to seeing Mr. Olson’s movies and reading his book!

I see that netflix has Dodos, but not Sizzle.

Posted on Dec 16, 2009 at 8:37pm by Trail Rider Comment #6

Flock of Dodos











Posted on Dec 16, 2009 at 10:39pm by psikeyhackr Comment #7