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.

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