Posts Tagged ‘Randy Olson’

Randy Olson on lemmings and leaders

August 20, 2010

Great article by Randy Olson at the Benshi, contemplating two polarized options of dealing with the climate crisis: like lemmings or like leaders.

Lemmings would tend to wait for the problem to become so massive that there’s just no other option than to deal with it, as in ‘we need a catastrophy before we start taking this problem seriously’.


leadership is what ought to be expected of a species of primates whose birth canals have had to widen over the ages to make space for enlarged crania.

He also discusses the following important point, based on the following suggestion he received from a friend:

“Accept arguments on the basis of evidence alone (not on the basis of who presents them).”

to which he counters:

That sounds great and admirable, at least in principle. But it’s not realistic in the complicated world of science-based issues. (…)

This is why we have leaders. It’s called civilization. At some point we put our trust in those with that stuff called “knowledge.” Like the IPCC. It’s not perfect, but it’s our best shot at avoiding the lemmings scenario.

For the complicated world of science-based issues, the lay person needs shortcuts to evaluate the trustworthiness of the information. One of my older posts that I like most deals with exactly that question. For health issues, it’s not much different.

And to plug another, unrelated but also very good article, Stephan Lewandowsky wrote a guest post over at Skeptical Science on short term uncertainty in the weather versus long term certainty in the climate, with the price winning quote:

There is uncertainty [about climate change], but only in the way that there is uncertainty about what happens when you drive into a brick wall at 80 km/h. You might just get away with a few bruises and a concussion, but it is far more likely that you would break a leg or worse.

No one in their right mind would drive into a brick wall because the outcome is “uncertain.”

Communicating science: Angry or calm, cerebral or emotional?

March 12, 2010

Randy Olson, author from the provocative book “Don’t be such a scientist!” has some interesting essays over at The Benshi.

Provocative? Well, not everybody agrees with his suggestions. Michael Tobis for example argues the exact opposite: Act like a scientist! Oh, and what to think of this opening sentence of a review of the book:

“I’m going to write this review in the style suggested by Randy Olson. This means that I’m going to use my penis.”

I guess that the reviewer’s interpretation of not being so cerebral.

Anyway, over at The Benshi I ran into this video of Ed Begley Jr. being interviewd on Fox News in the wake of the “climategate” mess. I was cracking up. As Randy said to Ed: He kicked ass. He made some good points along the way as well, though half the interview they were trying to shout each other down, so it was hard to follow. If there would be rice on the table it would have quite literally turned into a foodfight I gather. Begley appeared sincere though, and sincerely angry.

Now the question is, is this the way we ought to communicate? As filmmaker/activist I guess everything goes, and it may be effective indeed (Begley did get his main point across), but I do have a feeling that it’s not effective or even counterproductive in the long run for a scientist to go at it the way Ed Begley does.

OTOH, isn’t it time we get out of the defense (yeah, we made a small mistake; we’ll try to do better next time; please don’t hit us) and tell the public how it is? Call a liar a liar? And a duck a duck? (There’s an excellent analogy hidden behind that ducky title btw.) And then we have people argue the opposite, that scientists should just stick to the science and not be so defensive, let alone offensive. That we should embrace our critics.

I’m of two minds on this one, though many of the pseudo-skeptics in the blogosphere have had a very destructive influence on the science, especially lately. If they have shown by their behavior not to be interested in contributing to the science in a constructive manner, then I don’t see the point in inviting them to the table. In fact, they have been welcome all along, if they chose to play by the scientific rules. They have chosen not to; I don’t see any point in changing the rules to accommodate them. (See for a good explanation of the scientific rules/methods here, starting at slide 39).

Olson interviewed Marc Morano and concluded that, for all the falsehoods he’s spreading, he is great communicator. He lists the following reasons why:

1 Specifics

2 Arouse and fulfill

3 Non-controlling

4 Humor

5 Storytelling

6 Drama

7 Ability to listen

8 Non-condescension

9 Speed

10 Likeability

So on the scientific side of things, do we have great communicators? Richard Alley was fabulous at the AGU. Tim Lambert did great in his debate with Monckton. I like Naomi Oreskes as a speaker, but that’s to a large degree for what she sais rather than how she sais it. Spencer Weart is great storyteller, at least in written form.

Debates are tough. A scientist will likely get very frustrated about the stream of lies and “truthisms” being spout by the “skeptic” debating opponent. Keeping your cool is a necessary, but darn hard in such a case. OTOH, and as per Olson’s suggestion, not being afraid to invoke and show emotions either. Then the challenge is how to find a balance between the kung-fu style attack modus of Begley and the frustrated shouting of “asshole” by Watson?

I discussed Olson’s and Craven‘s books and ideas before here. Mt discusses science and journalism and science communication in a lot of insightful posts. He is no fan of Olson, mind you.

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