Randy Olson’s book “Don’t Be Such A Scientist” breaks down the breakdown in science communication.
Marine biologist-turned- filmmaker Randy Olson thinks scientists could learn a thing or two from an unlikely source: Hollywood. In his new book, “Don’t Be Such A Scientist,” Olson looks at how scientists aren’t keeping up with today’s quick communication, and says a lesson in Hollywood style storytelling could be the solution. He spoke with Living On Earth’s Jeff Young about how he sees this disconnect playing out in current events.
GELLERMAN: Now, Professor Skinner is pretty good, as scientists go, at explaining a complex subject to the average person.
We spend a lot of time at Living on Earth trying to find researchers who can talk the talk to a lay audience…and frankly, it can be tough. Translating something as difficult as say, climate change, into an easily understood issue takes a special knack that Randy Olson says scientists need to learn.
Olson, a marine biologist turned Hollywood filmmaker has a new book explaining how. It’s called “Don’t Be Such A Scientist.” Randy Olson recently spoke with Living on Earth’s Jeff Young.
YOUNG: Well, let’s start with this odd resume of yours. How does one go from being a marine biologist to Hollywood filmmaker?
OLSON: Through the telling of stories. And, these days when I look back at the two careers, that seems to be the unifying theme. I think I was drawn into the world of science by getting to know a number of senior scientists who were incredible storytellers. And, by the late ‘80s I had gotten to the point where I’d done a lot of the major field experiences that I’d wanted to have and found myself telling lots of stories of what I had learned and the deeper I got into that the more I started experimenting with the use of film and video. And I finally realized in 1994, right about the time I got tenure as a professor in science, that I wanted to kind of branch off and go off into this different direction.
YOUNG: So what does Hollywood have to teach science?
OLSON: The key point in terms of this element of storytelling is that it is the most powerful means of broad communication and people have known that here for over a hundred years in Hollywood, and so they have really refined the process of how you put together a story into its most enjoyable elements and it’s most easily received elements. So an audience can sit there and actually not mind the information that you are trying to convey to them in the course of the story. They know how to do it, and there is so much the science world can convey to them, and will, eventually, it’s just a matter of when they ease up.
YOUNG: Well, tell me more. What are scientists doing wrong here?
OLSON: They are so focused on just getting the facts and only the facts and putting them in there and getting all of the information in, at all costs, that it handicaps their ability to tell a good story, number one. And number two- they just simply don’t put a priority on making sure that they are telling a well structured story. And number three- over the ages there has developed this phobia about the word ‘story.’ They have come to equate those words with dishonesty, and that’s not the case. The challenge is to tell stories that are 100 percent accurate. That is exactly the message of my book.
YOUNG: Give me a couple of examples of what you hear scientists doing wrong and where they might benefit from looking to, of all places, Hollywood.
OLSON: Well, for starters, as one of my screenwriter friends said, they bury the lead. Just as a silly little example of that, last spring I ran a workshop where we had a bunch of scientists send us their videos of videos that they’re making in their labs, and one group sent this video of deep sea creatures- which they had 40 deep sea creatures- and in the middle of all of these little clips, all of a sudden there was a photo of this long, thin, eel-like fish and then a shot of 12 men on the dock holding this thing up.
And, that photo of 12 men holding up this fish- it’s the longest fish in the world, ever been discovered- and yet, the people putting together the video didn’t think it was any different than the weird little sea cucumbers, slugs and stuff that they had in the other shots, and they were seeking my input, and I said, “Start your video with that! That turns people’s heads. That’s fascinating!”
YOUNG: But just prioritizing and finding the more interesting nuggets- that alone can’t explain why science seems to be getting its head handed to it over and over, for example, in the climate debate. What’s going wrong there?
OLSON: There’s this element of speed that is not built into the system and the science community is continuing to communicate today largely at the same pace they did 20 or 30 years ago, while our society is turning into this rapid-action society of people tweeting and twittering and youtub-ing and everything else like that and the profession is not keeping up with it.
The science world, I mean, the clearest example of what happened as a consequence of that is what went on last November with the climate-gate debacle where somebody in the UK stole 1500 or so emails from climate scientists and immediately set to work spinning what that material was about into a big story for the media. And, as this all erupted, the science community just sat there in, more or less, in shock, just watching it.
YOUNG: Well, ok, so if a scientist caught up in that so-called ‘climate-gate’ episode, had read your book, and, was thinking about applying the lessons from Hollywood, what should the scientists have done there in response?
OLSON: They should have taken the initiative by, first off, telling the story in their own terms. And, the story began with the fact that the law was broken. People broke in, illegally, to a computer and stole emails. I will say again the number one priority is the telling of stories and the structuring of information. And, it’s the logical flow, it’s the narrative development, and it’s the ability to tell the story all the way from ten pages down to one page, down to one paragraph, down to a single sentence.
And, you know, that’s the idea of high concept in Hollywood, is the ability in a single sentence to tell the very complex story that springs to life and lights a fire in the mind of the person. And, you know, as I mentioned in the book- Snakes on a Plane. That’s all it takes for you to see a scenario that has urgency to it and you can envision people dealing with that.
YOUNG: So, what’s the high concept for climate change, then? What’s your elevator pitch?
OLSON: We’re all going to die. (Laughs).
YOUNG: (Laughs) Oh boy! But you’ve got no sequel!
OLSON: (Laughs) Truly.
YOUNG: You know, reading your book, I had a negative reaction not so much to what you were saying, but to what it implied about us, the audience receiving the science information, that we need some song and dance from scientists. Shouldn’t it be enough and doesn’t it say something bad about us on the receiving end of this information that we can’t just be happy with scientists doing science, and telling us the science?
OLSON: I think the ironic thing with story telling is that once upon a time it was the most powerful means of mass communication. And then, in the ‘80s and the ‘90s during the information explosion there was an era where people were questioning, you know, is story telling dead and over with. And, I think it’s now undergoing a rebirth. Where, it’s now, in the middle of all this chaos, it is the beacon of clarity of all these people that can get up there and tell us this information in a structured format- in the form of a story telling.
It’s unfortunate, you know, I wish we lived in a world where you didn’t have to bother with communications, where you could open your mouth and speak the facts and they would be golden, but we’re not in that world, we’re in the United States of America.
YOUNG: Randy Olson, thanks very much.
OLSON: You betcha.
Living on Earth wants to hear from you!
P.O. Box 990007
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.
Major funding for Living on Earth is provided by the National Science Foundation.
Kendeda Fund, furthering the values that contribute to a healthy planet.
The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.
Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary hummingbird photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.