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Thursday, January 7, 2010

What I’m Reading (& EVERYONE Should Read)

A few years back EB featured a movie, Flock of Dodos.Dodos This film exploring the “debate” between evolution and intelligent design was captivating, educational, and entertaining. Its creator, Randy Olson, inspires me. A tenured professor, he left academia, attended film school at USC, and now makes movies about science.

Think Michael Moore with a PhD. In short, this is the career path of my dreams. That or writing the Great American Novel, developing the screenplay, and winning the Oscar for it. But I digress.

When I saw Olson’s book on communicating science, I had to read it immediately. Yesterday I read a review, downloaded it to my Kindle, and devoured about 40% of its virtual pages already.

Don’t Be Such a Scientist provides the answer to the real question facing science today!DontBe

A number of scientists with good communication skills kvetch about the public’s lack of literacy. Most seem focused on educational policy and getting “the facts” out there in an accessible way. If we provide the data, the public will “get it.”

Dr. Olson debunks this attitude almost immediately. Through amusing stories of his experiences in acting and film classes, as well as life under the Hollywood sign, he illustrates a major problem: most of the public engages in issues through feelings, not through thought, something similar to my prior post on the book Unscientific America:

Ultimately, two antithetical forces are at work here. Science demands testable facts to support its theories. Religion is based on faith which requires belief without proof. Having grown up in the bible belt, I can tell you that new earth creationists are not swayed by the fossil record or any other evidence you present regarding the reality of evolution. They believe.

Olson’s book discusses ways to relate to the public on this visceral level so they care about the science. Important issues need to be more visual and emotional; the opposite tactic that most scientific groups pursue!

It brought to mind several other books I have read dealing with science and exploration around the turn of the last century. Thunderstruck was the most recent of these, a story of the invention of wireless communication by Marconi intertwined with a murder mystery and transatlantic flight. What these books all had in common?

Scientists had to put on a show.

Federal funding for science? Just not there except for weapons in time of war. No, those who “discovered” stuff had to be independently wealthy or appeal to wealthy donors. Explorers and inventers would give demonstrations of their discoveries in hopes of acquiring funds for their next venture.

I am trying to imagine the last manuscript I read as a show. It would never make it to Broadway… As a movie, it would not even hit the direct to DVD market. On YouTube? Fuggedaboutit!

I have always acknowledged my creative streak, my desire to “put on a show.” Editing a magazine has been a much better fit than a journal, simply because we have to make it visually exciting (getting doctors and scientists to write for a magazine has been a bit of a challenge, but that’s another story). Olson’s book fits with my own, admittedly biased, viewpoint on the problem with science dissemination. If I didn’t have a grant to write (speaking of boring scientese), I would finish perusing the book right now.

By the way, Dr. Olson, I would love to work on a movie. Call me- we’ll do lunch (isn’t that the Hollywood way?).

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