Saturday, September 19, 2009

Truth or Beauty?

How do scientists screw up in reaching the public? That's the theme of the new book, Don't Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style (which came out right away in paperback). Read it.

The author, Randy Olson, knows both sides. He resigned a tenured professorship at the University of New Hampshire in the early 90s to start over as a filmmaker, most notably making Flock of Dodos and Sizzle. But the impact of these movies, Olson says, comes from bypassing the "head"--the cerebral target of most documentaries--and aiming instead for lower organs: the heart, the gut, and perhaps even the naughty bits. Instead of being "about" intelligent design and global warming, respectively, they illuminate these topics obliquely through a more human story line.

Olson doesn't dismiss the power of the science, and even admits that he's known among friends for his negative, skeptical, and even boring demeanor. But reaching a wider audience needs a more visceral appeal. Olson's self-deprecating humor makes it easy for nerds like me to recognize how our analytical habits of thought and speech can turn people off. But in the end he appeals to scientists to heed their own "voice," while becoming more "bilingual" by learning additional ways to first engage people in order to inform them.

Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum's Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future addressed some of the same issues of communicating science. For example, both books extol Carl Sagan as a master communicator who suffered for it professionally. But Unscientific America's more academic approach ultimately left me disappointed, with its bland recommendation that more scientists should reach out to the public, and be rewarded for it. Don't Be Such a Scientist gives a much more satisfying vision of how to get there, on a personal level. But it also shows what makes it hard.

One of the big challenges is the conflict between "accuracy" and "boredom," which Olson likens to the tradeoff between false positives and false negatives in a classification task. For example, you can't catch every instance of disease without mistakenly diagnosing some healthy people. By temperament and training, scientists regard accuracy as paramount, even at the cost of some boredom. Effective communication, he says, requires a different balance, which scientists will have to learn to live with.

No doubt this tradeoff exists, and it's important to recognize it. But this part of the book struck me as a bit of a copout, because--with effort--you can change the terms of the tradeoff. For example, an improved medical test can significantly reduce both the false positives and false negatives. The idea that compelling communication requires sacrificing accuracy is a red herring, one that fueled a huge amount of discussion in the blogosphere a year or two ago around the issue of "framing" (which I will not get into here).

It would be more useful to address the specific issues of how accuracy and boredom conflict in particular cases, and tricks to sidestep each conflict. Olson doesn't get into this level of detail, taking it for granted that a movie about global warming, for example, must make factual errors if it is to reach a wide audience.

I'm sure the challenge in movie-based storytelling is much harder than in what I do, which is writing for an audience that's already somewhat scientifically engaged. Still, much of my writing time is aimed at changing the terms of the accuracy/readability tradeoff. It takes a lot of work, but it's a major part of the art of scientific communication.

Of course, there's still a limit to how far you can take this, and in the end there will still be a tradeoff. Olson is right that sacrificing absolute accuracy sometimes makes it possible to communicate a larger truth, and do it in a way that people engage with and remember.

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