Who's to blame for the crisis in science?

Talk of the Nation did a story yesterday with Randy Olsen, a former marine biologist who left academia for Hollywood, and is an outspoken advocate of combining style with substance in scientific delivery. He’s written a new book, entitled, Don’t be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style. In some ways, this book and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future (by Mooney and Kirshenbaum) are matching bookends on the current crisis in science. The former blames (or at least addresses) the scientists, and the latter (primarily) the media.

I will certainly check out Olsen’s book, and he raises a number of good points. But I must confess that there was something rather off-putting about his own style (not least when he muttered to a caller to “get to the point”). This, I suppose, is the problem with so many scientists, professors, and would-be science popularizers. We each hold ourselves up as a paragon of clarity and humor. I know that I have done the same thing. But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in lectures by experts in pedagogy or specialists in public outreach who gave just absolutely horrible talks. What’s more, the vast majority of the people who I like and respect and enjoy — especially people in other fields — seem to be entirely self-taught.

So at Olsen’s request, I’ll get to the point. I agree that scientists have an obligation to present science in a fun, interesting, and accurate way. That is a truism. However, based on my own experience, those scientists who have a gift for doing so are born, not made. I think the scientific community ought to embrace the Neil Tysons and Richard Dawkinses and Jared Diamonds of the world. They do us an enormous service.

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