BRIAN MALOW: What would it take for scientists to become better communicators?

Brian Malow
PHOTO BY DOROTHY PIERCE

When did you start getting into science?

Science has been a passion of mine since an early age, so when I started doing comedy it was natural that my interest in science would inform my style of comedy.

Who inspired you?

Early on I found a couple great science communicators that made it really cool – Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clark. And Asimov and Clark it turns out wrote a lot of non-fiction as well. They wrote these great science books and they were really good “explainers” of things. I never had to be won over by science. I always saw how cool it was.

I was doing stand-up for a long time before it clicked that I should call it science comedy, though.

Given the breadth of scientific topics in your routine, I was surprised to learn you’re not an actual scientist.

Yeah, well, there are corresponding blank spots in my life. (Laughter)

It’s funny because sometimes people think, “Wow, that’s kind of a limitation to focus just on science.” But if you think about it, there’s no limit at all. Science is in everything. It’s in art. It’s in sports. It covers so much of our lives and it’s so vast.

How do people react when you walk up to them at a party or conference and say, “Hi, I’m Brian the Science Comedian?”

(Laughter) Well, I rarely do that. You know, comics notoriously don’t like to reveal what we do for a living. Part of it is shyness and part of it is people react strangely when they hear you’re a comedian. They put you on the spot and want you to tell jokes. I mean if you’re a lawyer I’m not going to ask you to practice law right in front of me.

There’s a bad taste in some people’s mouths about science comedy, too. Maybe they saw a mixture of science and humor that was kind of corny. Maybe they saw a scientist trying to be funny as opposed to a comedian doing science comedy. I think that a lot of scientists are funny. But not all of them are, I guess.

Why is science communication so important?

I think there’s this growing awareness that in addition to their regular scholarship, scientists need to be good communicators. Especially since there are so many subjects today—like evolution and climate—where it’s dangerous or depressing how misinformed the public is.

What are some things a scientist could start doing right now to be a better communicator?

Well, first, I’d say be yourself. A lot of scientists have experience speaking to their peers in the context of presenting their work. That’s a certain kind of presentation—highly technical and speaking to an audience that is as technical as you. In speaking to the public, it’s important to know your audience and be aware that they don’t have all the references you have.

It’s also important to not just be you the scientist but to reveal some personality. It’s important to make a connection with an audience. So, it’s helpful to reveal some of your passion and curiosity and what drew you into science. What’s your motivation? That’s because people want to know why they should care about something. So, a good place to start is to remember why you care about this. At the core, there must have been something that drew you into this. Try sharing that. It’s not the sort of thing you’d share with a technical audience, but it’s the exact sort of thing to share with the general public.

It’s also important to be prepared so you aren’t reading from a script. You want to be present in order to make a connection.

What would you say to scientists or other who feel uncomfortable being “under the spotlight”?

Some people get thrown off by being onstage, but we get better at everything with time and practice. What you want is to really be yourself up there and not be afraid to reveal a little bit of personality and passion.

Also, talking to an audience is just like talking to an individual. You want to connect with them. You don’t want to be looking at your slides or down at your paper. Nonverbal communication can sometime be as important as—if not more important than—the actual words you’re saying.

The other thing I really like in terms of communications tools is using analogies, stories and anecdotes. People connect with stories.

What’s your number one tip for scientists when speaking to the public?

It’s just so important to be there and present in the moment when you’re on stage.

It’s almost like scientists have been trained to take emotion out of the equation.

Yeah, well, in science there is this importance to separate the emotions from the facts. Scientists are supposed to be dispassionate. But, I don’t think this means you have to be a Vulcan who’s devoid of emotions. You just have to be able to analyze and look at the science separate from your emotions. When you’re talking to real people, it’s great to be a full, complete human.

I did some workshops with the National Research Council in Canada and one of the scientists in my workshop researched vaccines. There was a time when his son was getting a vaccination, and he realized he had contributed to the development of that vaccine. Here he is watching his own son get this treatment that he had helped to develop. Talk about motivation—that’s a great human story!

Who do you think are the great science communicators of our time and why?

Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan and Arthur C. Clarke are still among the best science explainers ever. Today, there are some scientists who are really great communicators. Neil deGrasse Tyson is one. I’ve seen him speak live and he’s like a science comedian, but it never gets in the way of him communicating science. His passion and love of science also comes across all the time. Lawrence Kraus is another one. He’s funny and he’s written a couple books about the science behind Star Trek. Richard Feynman was a hoot, too. Brilliant, Nobel-winning physicist with a lot of personality. You can just tell how much he loved science by the way he talked about it. They’re all great science communicators with great personalities, but they’re not necessarily all funny.

I think scientists get a bad rap sometimes. There’s this idea that somehow scientists are not only nerdy but they’re boring or dry. I think that’s a really bad rap because I think more than almost any other career you’d think of, scientists have really maintained their child-like wonder with the universe. For most scientists, science isn’t just a job. They love it! They have this passion! That’s something people don’t say about accountants and bankers and people who work on Wall Street.

Why do you think some people are so skeptical of scientists or their research?

There’s something fascinating about why people don’t trust scientists. I mean we defer to so many experts in our lives. You know, if you have a problem with your plumbing, you call the plumber. If you have a problem with your car, you call the mechanic. But for some reason when it comes to evolution or climate change, you’re going to trust some politician and not the experts? It’s so absurd. What if we greeted plumbers with the same skepticism? “Oh, yeah, right, right. You’re just gonna snake that little thing down there and it’s gonna clear up the problem? Sure. And I’m supposed to believe that?”

It’s like the “Check Planet” light on the dashboard has turned on and we’re just sticking our thumb over it.

Science Comedian BRIAN MALOW

Science and comedy—generally two words you don’t think about in the same sentence, unless your name is BRIAN MALOW.

The self-proclaimed science comedian is making subjects like astronomy, physics and biology cool by entertaining and educating audiences across the country. Along the way, he’s also sharing tips and tricks for scientists interested in becoming better public speakers. So, a scientist walks into a bar …


Published Interview

Read the interview with Brian Malow as it appeared in the print version of Momentum.


VIDEO: Best of Science Comedy from Science Comedian Brian Malow

A short edited reel of the science humor of Brian Malow from performances at the Marian Koshland Science Museum of the National Academy of Sciences, in Washington, D.C. And the Punchline Comedy Club in San Francisco. And Rooster T. Feather's in Sunnyvale, too. Watch the video on YouTube

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