Exposing PseudoAstronomy

May 2, 2016

On the (In)Ability of Scientists to Give Good Public Talks


When I was an undergraduate student at Case Western Reserve University, the now-more-famous physicist Lawrence Krauss was head of the Physics department. Somehow, he managed to arrange a panel of about six Nobel Prize Winners (probably in physics) to give a panel discussion. I don’t even remember the topic.

What I do remember was my expectation going in and my reality coming out.

My expectation going in was extreme excitement, getting to sit in an auditorium and listen to these men (sorry ladies, it was all men) who pretty much literally had done the research that was recognized as being ground-breaking and reached the top of their field.

I came out thinking that it sucked.

Not a-one of those guys could give a coherent discussion or answer to questions, or do it in a way that was engaging to us in the audience. It was horribly disappointing. (And if one or two of them could, unfortunately that memory has been erased by those who could not.)

Right now, I’m listening to a radio program from April 08 where Will Farrar and Richard Hoagland discussed – in particular to this post – a talk that Chris Russell gave a talk during Space Science Week in Washington, D.C., just a day or so earlier.

Dr. Chris Russell is the PI (the head science-and-everything-else guy) in charge of NASA’s Dawn mission to Vesta and Ceres.

In particular, Will remarked that he was unimpressed with Dr. Russell’s talk, that practically every-other-word was “um” or “uh,” and he was not alone in thinking this. Richard Hoagland posited that this was because he was choosing his words carefully — in effect, to make sure he wouldn’t be giving away any of the NASA secrets like city ruins on these bodies.

Or, Dr. Russell just isn’t a good public speaker. And I’ll say it: I have been to two lectures that Dr. Russell has given. I would not elect to go to a third. What Will noticed is par for the course, in my experience, for Dr. Russell’s talks.

I’m reminded of a saying that we like to use in skepticism: Don’t attribute to conspiracy what can easily be contributed to incompetence. (One of the examples most often used is the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the US illustrating government incompetence rather than a ridiculously high level of competence to carry out such a coordinated, secret attack.)

I’m not saying that Dr. Russell is incompetent – far from it, for he is a wildly successful scientist – but a good, engaging public speaker, he is not. It has nothing to do with a vast conspiracy to hide The Truth, it’s just that public speaking is a completely different skill set from being able to do good science, and not every scientist is a good public speaker.

7 Comments »

  1. There is a huge problem with dissemination of science. It just makes sense that most people good at physics will not be at the same time good at public speaking. Years of talking to specialists will not teach them to talk to the public. Every time I visit a lecture I am prepared for that. Those who are good at both happen … very rarely.

    Comment by Pawel Warnenski — May 3, 2016 @ 5:23 am | Reply

    • Reminds me of Neil Armstrong – a great astronaut and pilot, but a bumbling public speaker.

      Comment by caralex — May 5, 2016 @ 1:56 pm | Reply

    • And yet neither the Royal Institution nor the Perimeter Institute seem to be lacking for good public lecturers, even if some of them seem like they’d be more comfortable anywhere but behind the lectern. The Messenger and Robb lectures are still alive and well. TV Ontario, a provincial public broadcaster up here in Canuckistan, regularly televises lectures in a variety of fields under the title “Big Ideas”, and part of each year’s series is a student-nominated “best lecturer” competition. (Think Pop Idol/American Idol, but for college/university instructors.)

      Certainly there are superstar expositors and popularizers who are merely (!) competent scientists or mathematicians or what have you, but there are also more than a few Nobel laureates and Fields medalists who are as articulate and entertaining as they are accurate and precise. I’ve been out of serious mathematics for a very long time and was never research mathematician, but Cedric Villani can not only keep me listening, he can explain deep concepts in a way that doesn’t oversimplify at all, but doesn’t lose me either, even when his audience is research mathematicians. I’ve never seen anyone taking more pleasure in awkward public out-geeking than NIST’s William Phillips. Allan Adams’ classroom performance in the MIT Open Courseware Physics 801 videos is quite obviously just a guy who’s turned on by what he does and wants to warp the students’ minds the same way his was warped by quantum physics. I could go on and on for hours here.

      Good public speakers – good lecturers – exist, but I fear we no longer cherish them, nor do we place much importance on their development. There will always be people who are almost pathologically incapable – for every Humphrey Davey, there will be a Henry Cavendish – but between the constant proposal writing, clawing for a scant share of scarce funds, and the “publish or perish” atmosphere, academia has all but completely lost its ability to tell the world what it’s doing.

      And that, as much as anything, is why charlatans can thrive. People – most of them, at least – aren’t stupid. Explain and they will understand. But when the nonsense is, on its face, clearer than anyone is making the sense seem, they’ll go for the nonsense every single time. Two things need to stop: dumbing things down for the laypeople to the point that there is no real content anymore, and talking over their heads. Neither is necessary, but that constant exposition is.

      Comment by Stan Rogers — May 7, 2016 @ 3:14 am | Reply

  2. MIke de Grasse Tyson is a great public speaker. But we should remember that according to Mike Bara he is no longer an astrophysicist. Since he hasn’t realeased a paper since 1993.

    Comment by Derek James Eunson — May 10, 2016 @ 4:49 am | Reply

    • Is it Mike de Grasse Tyson and Neil Bara……? I get so mixed up. Both are equally renowned for their sterling work in physics, mathematics and astronomy.
      Sheesh, cannot believe I did that.🙂
      Moving on. Mike Bara did say that NDGT is no longer an astrophysicist, for the reason I stated earlier. Yet Mike at every single conference he attends and speaks at refers to himself as an engineer, an aeronautics engineer, a mechanical engineer, an aerospace engineer, or similar. The plain fact is Mike has never been an engineer. He was a CAD-CAM technician, contracted at Boeing. Not employed by Boeing. Even if he WERE an engineer, by his own measurement he is no longer an engineer. Since he was laid off by Boeing around 2005.

      Comment by Derek James Eunson — May 10, 2016 @ 7:17 am | Reply

  3. Perhaps being a good public speaker in front of laymen is not the most important skill for doing astronomy? Patience, diligence, intelligence, curiosity, etc.? No doubt it would help when an astronomer speaks with laymen, but is it important in his day to day work?

    When people of vastly different interests and knowledge talk, it is not uncommon for them to use analogies and metaphors. Words. Concrete images.

    When people of similar interests and knowledge talk, they may well be comfortable with jargon and technicalities–even need to speak in that way. Math, theories. Abstractions. In addition, it is simply more accurate and efficient.

    It is a rare person who can do both, Dr.Robbins. Well done.

    Comment by abeslaney — May 20, 2016 @ 10:48 am | Reply

  4. Great minds are often not great public speakers. Thomas Jefferson admitted as much about himself and he wasn’t a dummy. I had an e&m prof back in the 80s as an undergraduate who had done research on the shroud of Turin and was on that hocky but memorable show In Search Of, at least to a 14 year old. Well the guy could not give a lecture that kept anyone’s attention to save his life. The class had about 200 students and most of the time there were about 20 of us who attended. I was damn sure I was going to get my money’s worth ha ha. After 25 years in marketing you can become an engaging funny effective public speaker but it takes time and effort. If u know your content and audience it doesn’t matter if it’s a bunch of sales reps or the ceo

    Comment by Mike fedele — May 29, 2016 @ 1:12 pm | Reply


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