Don't Be Such a Scientist
6 x 9
13 photos and illustrations
6 x 9
13 photos and illustrations
"You think too much! You mother F@$#%&* think too much! You're nothing but an arrogant, pointy-headed intellectual — I want you out of my classroom and off the premises in five minutes or I'm calling the police and having you arrested for trespassing." — Hollywood acting teacher to Randy Olson, former scientist
After nearly a decade on the defensive, the world of science is about to be restored to its rightful place. But is the American public really ready for science? And is the world of science ready for the American public?
Scientists wear ragged clothes, forget to comb their hair, and speak in a language that even they don't understand. Or so people think. Most scientists don't care how they are perceived, but in our media-dominated age, style points count.
Enter Randy Olson. Fifteen years ago, Olson bid farewell to the science world and shipped off to Hollywood ready to change the world. With films like Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus (Tribeca '06, Showtime) and Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy (Outfest '08), he has tried to bridge the cultural divide that has too often left science on the outside looking in.
Now, in his first book, Olson, with a Harvard Ph.D. and formerly a tenured professor of marine biology at the University of New Hampshire, recounts the lessons from his own hilarious-and at times humiliating-evolution from science professor to Hollywood filmmaker. In Don't Be Such a Scientist, he shares the secrets of talking substance in an age of style. The key, he argues, is to stay true to the facts while tapping into something more primordial, more irrational, and ultimately more human.
In a book enlivened by a profane acting teacher who made Olson realize that "nobody wants to watch you think," he offers up serious insights and poignant stories. You'll laugh, you may cry, and as a communicator you'll certainly learn the importance of not only knowing how to fulfill, but also how to arouse.
"Don't Be Such a Scientist is a stinging critique, yet it's also a funny, heart-felt account of one scientist's efforts to make non-scientists care about the natural world."
Carl Zimmer, author of "Microcosm" and the award-winning science blog The Loom
"If you are a wildlife professional who has ever been faced with hunters not believing your data and questioning your management recommendations, or have had to deal with angry property-rights advocates questioning not only your results but your integrity, then Don't Be Such a Scientist should be on your professional reading list."
Chapter 1. Don't Be So Cerebral
Chapter 2. Two: Don't Be So Literal Minded
Chapter 3. Don't Be Such a Poor Storyteller
Chapter 4. Don't Be So Unlikeable
Chapter 5. Be the Voice of Science!
Appendix 1. The Sizzle Frazzle
Appendix 2. Filmmaking for Scientists
Appendix 3. Randy Olson
Rachel Miller is Sales Associate at Island Press.
This Earth Day scientists will receive attention like never before (and they deserve it), but if they’re smart they’ll turn to great leaders like Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. as models for how to engage the public. Both of them had what scientists tend to lack — narrative intuition.
In one major Washington DC Earth Day event, the Earth Optimism Summit (where I’ll be speaking) scientists will be the main attraction. Across town at the March for Science, scientists will literally be on parade. It will be a big day, but if they want to make an impact they will need to “deliver a message.” To do that they need to understand the power of narrative which underpins messaging.
Let me show you how narrative works using two of the greatest speeches in American history. I’ll analyze them with the ABT narrative template I developed and presented in my 2015 book Houston, We Have A Narrative. It’s the centerpiece of my Story Circles Narrative Training program I now run with a range of government agencies (including National Park Service, NASA, USDA, USFWS and USGS) and corporations. You won’t find it in any humanities textbooks. The closest thing is my friend Jerry Graff’s million-selling handbook for argumentation, They Say, I Say.
First, the template. The ABT consists of three words (and, but, therefore). These words embody the three fundamental forces of narrative (agreement, contradiction, consequence). It’s a tool that provides the structure for boiling down content to its narrative core by filling in the blanks of, “_____ AND _____ BUT _____ THEREFORE _____.”
The ABT gives you a narrative statement that is both concise and compelling — not boring or confusing. If you look at the Gettysburg Address, famous for its brevity, you see it’s a perfect ABT of three paragraphs.
For Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I Have A Dream” speech his first paragraph is ABT, plain and simple. He even has the words “but” and “so” (which is the more common word of consequence than “therefore”).
So why is this relevant to scientists? Because if they want to accomplish anything meaningful, they need a clear message, which means narrative. In fact, narrative is what “branding” is in the business world. It all comes down to the same basic dynamics — “Coke AND Pepsi are great, BUT 7 Up is better, THEREFORE you need to drink it.”
On April 22 large numbers of scientists will walk the streets of Washington DC and demand … what? What will they demand? What is their message? What is their motto? What is their slogan? What is their slugline (the short statement of their demands)?
Let’s have a look at their website. In their banner is the title of the event, “The March for Science,” but nothing more.
The fact is the march was announced over two months ago, but still there doesn’t seem to be a simple message. This is a problem, because when you fail to speak up for yourself simply and loudly, others will speak for you. This is exactly what has happened for the Science March.
On January 31 a scientist from South Carolina wrote an editorial in the New York Times titled, “A Scientists March on Washington is a Bad Idea.” This was followed by Vox calling the idea “awkward,” BuzzFeed saying scientists were “arguing” over it, and Science Magazine offering unsolicited advice.
For all of these media pronouncements there has been no clear idea of what the scientists want (i.e. the message — and maybe all they really want is to be respected, in which case they might draw their message from the motto of the nation’s largest science organization, American Association for the Advancement of Science, which is “Serving society”). Looking at the four paragraphs of text on the March for Science website you see very little narrative structure. Instead of starting with words of agreement (such as “We all know science is a cornerstone of our society”) it begins with consequence (scientists are marching). Which means from the outset they are narratively confused.
It’s great that scientists are massing for the big events, but it would be even better if they could agree on what it is they want. They (and actually everyone) would do well this Earth Day to study the narrative structure of those who understand it’s power, past and present. This includes Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., and yes, as I regretfully pointed out in a podcast the morning after the election, our new President.
Sorry about that, but it’s still a fact that narrative is essential to lead. People don’t follow voices that are boring or confusing. It’s a principle of society that reaches back thousands of years. Scientists can’t afford to neglect it.
Randy Olson earned his Ph.D. at Harvard University and became a professor of marine biology before moving to Hollywood for his second career as a filmmaker. He is the author of Don't be Such a Scientist.
At Island Press, our staff, authors, educators, practitioners, and partner organizations are committed to providing the knowledge and information that can change minds, change practice, and change policy. That's why we're partnering with The March for Science. History contains far too many examples of attempts to suppress, obfuscate, and deny the knowledge that comes from science, and to shut down the vital conversation that advances and promotes it. We need to be vigilant in defending science against those who find it inconvenient or lack the will to engage with it.
With that in mind, we're offering a free excerpt from the book Don't Be Such a Scientist by Hollywood filmmaker and former science professor Randy Olson. In the book, Olson shares the secrets of talking substance in an age of style. The key, he argues, is to stay true to the facts while tapping into something more primordial, more irrational, and ultimately more human. You'll laugh, you may cry, and as a communicator you'll learn the importance and power of narrative.
Download a free excerpt here or read it below.
Katharine Sucher is the Publicity & Marketing Assistant at Island Press.
Many of you read Randy Olson's message to scientists and the March for Science about the power of narrative. (If you haven't, check it out here!) To learn more about talking substance in an age of style, listen to an excerpt of Chapter 4: Don't Be So Unlikeable, read by Olson himself, below. Have your own tips for improving science communication? Share them in the comments! And for a limited time, use code LIKEABLE for 25% off and free shipping on every copy of Randy Olson's Don't Be Such a Scientist bought from Island Press.
Katharine Sucher is the Publicity & Marketing Assistant at Island Press.
A piece from Grist points out that major TV networks spent just 50 minutes on climate change—combined—in 2016. We’ve asked a few of our journalist-authors what kind of responsibility the media has to report on climate change topics. Does this lack of coverage happen because there isn't a compelling news story or narrative? Check out what John Fleck, Dan Fagin, and Randy Olson have to say about it below.
As a journalist-turned-academic who has spent much of the last two-plus decades working on climate change issues, I agree with Grist and Media Matters that coverage of climate change is important, and that there should be more of it. In that regard, one of the highlights of the study is that there is a network that provided extensive coverage of climate change issues last year—PBS. Viewers' time is precious, and they have choices. On this issues, as on many important public policy questions, PBS is a good one.
The problem is not that media coverage of climate change is imbalanced. 'Balance' is not even something we should aspire to in journalism; fairness is, along with clarity and context. Why? Because all ideas shouldn't be given equal weight; some have a lot more evidence behind them than others! Actually, when climate issues are covered in media (with the very notable exceptions of FoxNews and right-wing websites like Breitbart and Daily Caller), the coverage usually reflects the scientific consensus. The bigger problem is that climate is so rarely covered at all, or at least it isn't covered as anything more than a political struggle. There are many reasons for this, including that climate is rarely "breaking news"; it is often very difficult to make accurate connections between specific local news events (such as storms and droughts) and global climate change.
A less obvious but even more important reason why climate in the mainstream media tends to be rare and shallow is what the communications scholar Dan Kahan at Yale has called the "polluted science communication environment" that plagues certain issues, including climate change. Through some very clever experiments, he has shown very clearly that what we may think is a relatively straightforward question of atmospheric physics and chemistry is actually now very emotional question of cultural identity. When we decide what we think about climate, we rarely make up our minds based on a dispassionate evaluation of the scientific evidence. Instead, we take our clues from the broader culture, because climate has become a powerful cultural signifier. Most of us believe whatever we believe about climate based on which "team" we prefer to be on—Team Red or Team Blue. Do we like Jon Stewart or Rush Limbaugh? Saturday Night Live or Duck Dynasty?
Once an issue has acquired this kind of cultural salience, it becomes very problematic for major media to cover because each side very passionately wants the coverage to reflect its point of view. So, more often than not, these very polarized issues either aren't covered at all or are covered as political struggles instead of us explications of evidence. That's a crucial failing of big journalism but it's a very difficult problem to solve because polarization is so difficult to avoid. Indeed, Kahan's research shows that the more people know about climate change—the more the understand the details of atmospheric chemistry and physics, for example—the greater the polarization becomes! Why? Because people cherry-pick that new information to reinforce what they already believe! Communications scholars call this 'motivated reasoning', and it is an extremely powerful force on issues that have become cultural signifiers.
The good news is, not all issues are as polarized as climate change, and we're not all automatically prisoners of motivated reasoning. Young people, especially, tend to be more open to evidence, especially if the topic is unfamiliar and has not been "polluted" with lots of partisan messages. For the rest of us, a smarter, deeper dialogue on global climate change is going to require talking about climate in ways that don't force our audiences to renounce their deeply held sense of who they are, what 'team' they're on. People like E.O. Wilson understand this; when he talks to evangelicals about biodiversity he frames it as "creation care". For journalists, though, this is a tricky business—we equate such framing with marketing and advocacy, not journalism.
Major media are going to produce more and better coverage of global climate change only after we can figure out ways of telling true stories about our changing planet that avoid antagonizing large chunks of our audiences while also living up to the ethical standards of good journalism. That's the challenge we face, and it's a daunting one.
First question — who says that climate change is “the defining issue of our time”? Seriously. Yes, we know that the educated left feels this way, but what about the general public? What percentage of them would answer “climate change” to the question of “What is the defining issue of our time?”?
This is a lot of the problem of the climate movement—an air of “everybody knows this” to all that they say. Everybody doesn’t know this. I would bet most people would say “the defining issue of our time” is terrorism. So that’s the first problem.
In fact, here’s the real, broader problem, which happens all the time—the production of solutions to problems that nobody feels we have. Effective communication is built around the problem/solution dynamic. Too often smart people sense a problem that few others do, come up with a big set of solutions, then can’t figure out why nobody wants to implement the solutions when presented.
Agreeing on “the problem” and agreeing it’s urgent and important is the challenge. When people sense problems they act. So far, climate change is still not perceived as “soon, salient and certain.” These are three words that EVERYONE in the climate movement should live by. Furthermore, they should all read Andy Revkin’s excellent and profound 2006 blogpost, “Yelling Fire on a Hot Planet” over and over again.
That blogpost is still about the smartest thing I’ve ever read on climate change. In the middle of it he cites Helen Ingram of U.C. Irvine who offered up those three words—soon, salient and certain.
And then talk to the two New Jersey TV meteorologists I met at a workshop a couple years ago who told me that before Super Storm Sandy their audience had zero interest in climate change. After it, they wanted to know everything about it. They had been the victims of an event that was soon (just happened), salient (happened to them in a big way), and certain (definitely happened).
Communicating effectively requires understanding the perceptions of the audience. If they don’t perceive a problem, they aren’t going to listen to your solutions, no matter how brilliant and passionately conveyed.
And so guess what drives TV coverage? It’s all about the problems the public wants solved. Convince them that climate really is the defining issue of our time and that it’s a problem and they will demand you present solutions.
Island Press' Associate Director of Marketing.