27.3.10

Book Review: Don't Be Such A Scientist.

You know there's something a little different about a book whose subjects on the back are listed as "Communication/Science/Film." Don't Be Such A Scientist could easily be viewed as a companion book to Unscientific America, since they describe different facets of the same problem. That problem is, namely, the vast disconnect between "science" and the "general public," especially on key issues such as evolution and global warming.

Randy Olson offers four prescriptive statements of what not to do: don't be so cerebral; don't be so literal minded; don't be such a poor storyteller; and don't be so unlikeable. He intersperses his suggestions with amusing anecdotes from his times as a Ph.D.-turned-film-student. It's amusing, makes good points, and is a quick read.

While he states that his audience is scientists, students, and the interested general public, I feel like the target audience is high school students and undergraduates. In fact, I think it is a perfect book to hand to a high school student who is interested in science - trying to get things right from the beginning, essentially, rather than trying to close the barn door after the horse has already escaped. And as a book for high school students or undergraduates, it hits all the right notes.

The final chapter is titled "Be the Voice of Science!" I must admit that I expected some sort of Plan, or at least some Suggestions. Instead, he mostly discusses that there is no template, and that each scientist must develop his or her own voice. Well - of course that's true. Some general discussion would have been helpful, though, along the lines of "here are some important things to know or note," or "here are a few ideas about skills that may be good to develop." I'm coming at this both as someone with scientific training (though no actual desire to work as a scientist), as well as the homeschooling parent of at least one child who will probably end up in a scientific field. (EG decided earlier this week she'd like to go to Cal Tech. Because "that kind of stuff is easy." Right-o.) What can I be doing to facilitate a well-rounded scientist?

I've told the Spousal Unit several times that I think being a well-rounded student takes more time when your area of specialty is math and science than the humanities or the arts. Not because math or science are inherently more time-consuming, but the level of knowledge which one needs of the humanities and the arts in order to be well-educated is so much higher than the amount of math or science necessary to be well-educated. A well-educated writer can take just three years of high school mathematics. A well-educated mathematician needs four years of literature study in high school, a good grasp on history, and an appreciation of aesthetics, in addition to whatever higher-level mathematics s/he is studying.

What I find myself wanting now is a discussion between a number of intelligent people about what things they personally would suggest. I think there would be some overlap, which would certainly indicate promising ideas, but I also think the atmosphere of discussion would yield new, maybe slightly off-the-wall ideas.
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"A little rebellion every now and then is a good thing." - Thomas Jefferson