A story-telling scientist
How long do you spend watching TV, reading stories in books or newspapers, listening to your friends spin everyday experiences into an entertaining tale?
We are all natural storytellers, and we all like listening to them. Since ancient times we have used stories to teach lessons and record our histories. So why do scientists avoid this well-loved (not to mention highly effective) form when communicating with the public? This is a question that Randy Olson asks regularly; it features in his films (such as last month’s Film Club: Flock of Dodos) and his books (just pick up his latest release Don’t be such a scientist). Randy has unique qualifications to discuss this issue, having left his career in marine science to pursue the lure of Hollywood.
For those of you who missed it, Flock of Dodos is HILARIOUS and extremely clever. Far from criticising the proponents of intelligent design (a vaguely disguised version of creationism), Randy shows what wonderful, kind and charismatic people they can be. In fact they generally appear to be much more ‘likeable’ than the scientists who, despite being academically correct, can seem prickly and condescending. This is one of his main messages – don’t underestimate the importance of being liked. It makes complete sense to me; I am much more receptive to ideas when a person seems friendly and honest. Randy’s documentary shows that he has absolutely mastered the art of telling science stories through film.
However, despite a now solid reputation in the film industry, his recent documentary Sizzle: A global warming comedy received mixed reviews, highlighting the divide between scientists and storytellers. Hollywood entertainment magazines, such as Variety, praised the film as “making science engaging to a general audience”. He was also favourably interviewed in The New York Times. But what about its reception in the science community? Nature, arguably our most reputable science magazine, reviewed the film with the headline “Climate comedy falls flat”. Hmmm. Not so good. But Randy doesn’t mind being criticised for ‘dumbing down’ scientific issues. He is a storytelling scientist.
In my recent Skype interview with Randy, he described the difference between these two worlds. Storytellers, he said, make information scarce, while scientists want to make information abundant. It is no good to throw figures, facts and statistics at the public in an effort to give them all the information.
In fairness to the scientists, however, this must be a pretty monumental ask. All their training instils the necessity of rigour and complete academic understanding. It is not in a true scientist’s nature to pick and choose details or to embellish their research with emotion. The fundamentals of their profession can therefore act as a handicap when talking to the public.
So how do we overcome this divide? How can scientists become better storytellers without compromising their academic integrity? Well I have no idea – sorry! Hopefully Randy will be able to tell us when he visits RiAus. Maybe he’ll have the answer.
By Kiran Groom
Image credit: Will Montague