Book [P]review: For The Scientist

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.