Don’t be such a Scientist!

February 5, 2009

Randy Olson lecture presented as part of the Darwin Distinguished Lecture Series. These events are sponsored by Arizona State University, Office of the President, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, School of Life Sciences, and the Center for Biology and Society.

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Transcript

Andrew Hamilton, Assistant Professor ASU School of Life Sciences: [0:01] Welcome everybody. Now, we’re starting a Darwin Fest event every hour on the half hour.

[0:05] [laughter]

Andrew: [0:08] We have a bunch of Darwin Fest events and you can find out what they are by going to Darwinfest.asu.edu.

[0:15] I would like to introduce Dr. Randy Olson. What he going to be doing today is tell you about this book that he has written about how scientists might think about communicating their science in a more effective way.

[0:25] So, Dr. Randy Olson it’s all yours.

[0:28] [applause]

Dr. Randy Olson: [0:38] Great to be here. Thanks very much. Lots to say in this little talk. Hopefully, some of you were at the screening last night of "Flock of Dodos." This is one little realization that we had last November. I was back in Kansas City and I was out with Steve Case who is one of the evolutionists in the movie from the University of Kansas.

[0:54] And we were sitting there talking about politics and everything like that. Then we suddenly hit this simultaneous moment of realization about this character from the movie and we realized where we had been seeing her in terms of national politics.

[1:08] [laughter]

Dr. Olson: [1:10] Thank it through. If you saw the movie, I swear to you, the exact same person. The media in Kansas was completely enamored and enraptured by her and all her silly antics and she was just as stupid as the other one.

[1:23] It was amazing. The things she said about evolution and then Sarah Palin said some things about questioning evolution as well. So, in some ways, that’s one of the themes of the two movies is that a lot of it is about personality. I’ll talk about those sorts of things today. In fact, I’ll mention her later.

[1:39] So, let’s get rolling here. My background in a nutshell is that I used to be a scientist and then 1994, left my tenured professorship at the University of New Hampshire. I moved to Los Angeles to change careers basically and get involved as a filmmaker. I spent about six or seven years immersed in Hollywood and the film making world; and then in 2001, reconnected with some science colleagues and began getting involved more specifically with the communication of science, which I was interested in all along, which is part of the process.

[2:07] And more importantly is the interest that I have developed is not in the academic communication of science so much; it is much more in the mass communication of science. There’s a big difference there. The academic communication is very narrow audience that is willing to rise to whatever level you toss out there for information.

[2:24] Mass communication is completely different. The dynamics are different. So, everything I’m talking about here is more about how to try and reach just the broad audience that isn’t ready to hang on every single word you have to say. This is a big challenge for today.

[2:38] The material that I draw from comes primarily from the last seven years, the things that I have been doing. It’s really from 30 years of my entire life, professional experiences from the science world to the film world, but specifically it concerns my film involvement recently.

[2:52] In 2001, I connected with Dr. Jeremy Jackson who I have known for over 30 years, my all time favorite marine biologist. Together we have created a media project called "Shifting Baselines, A Social Media Project." That’s still going, seven years later. It’s at shiftingbaselines.org.

[3:07] It’s a collaboration between Hollywood filmmakers and myself and ocean conservation folks to create new and different sorts of media to try and communicate ocean conservation issues to broader audiences. Then, I made this movie in 2006, "Flock of Dodos" and then last year "Sizzle" that we will be watching tonight.

[3:24] All of these materials and experiences have all been woven last year in a book that I wrote that will be coming out in September this year from my own press called "Don’t Be Such a Scientist Talking Substance in an Age of Style." A lot of what I’m saying here in this talk is the stuff that is in the book.

[3:39] My first introductory preface message here is, don’t shoot me. I’m only the messenger in terms of what I have to say here. For the past three years, lots of people on blogs have been having fun beating up on me and saying I’m full of nonsense, yada, yada.

[3:52] All I’m doing is telling you about patterns that are happening right now and I’m having no influence, no net influence really on them. I’m just really trying to help other people, especially in the science world understand this rapidly changing communication environment that we’ve got.

[4:07] If you think that you’ve finally understand how communication works right now, well guess what, a year from now your understanding is going to be out of date. It’s happening so quickly.

[4:16] You can see it all around you. As a matter of fact, just last week some of you may have seen a Saturday Night Live they had these little scenes called "McGroober" and it seemed like it was part of a Saturday Night Live episode last Saturday. It had it on some previous weeks and then all of a sudden if you watched the Super Bowl the next day, you suddenly saw these tings again and realized they are actually Pepsi commercials.

[4:37] What’s happened is that Loren Michaels and Saturday Night Live have licensed out this scene from the show to Pepsi for them to use for advertising. It’s very complicated and it’s all of a sudden lots of articles have cropped up in the last few days of people trying to figure out how do I feel about this.

[4:51] My favorite character is doing something that I thought was part of the comedy show. In fact, it’s advertising. It’s beyond product placement. It really is sort of a new mutation in terms of the advertising world and probably see more of this in the near future.

[5:03] I find it really fascinating, but it’s about change, particularly if you have a background in evolutionary biology and you are interested in mutations and selection and how things evolve over time. It’s the same basic process in terms of cultural evolution.

[5:16] So, the bottom line message is that change happens. If you are uncomfortable with it, you really shouldn’t have anything to do with evolutionary biology. That’s lesson number one.

[5:27] And the dynamics of the profession of science is changing rapidly because of what is happening with the communication environment. So, change happens. I’m going to start here with two little anecdotes to really bring this to life. I call these the alpha and omega anecdotes that I’ll offer up.

[5:44] The first one is form 30 years ago. The second one is from a few weeks ago. Both of these are written up in the book. So, here’s the first one.

[5:51] This shows you how changing communication is happening whether you like it or not. Once upon a time in 1977, I went to my first science meeting; back then I was undergraduate. And back in those days, this is what presentations looked like.

[6:04] Scientists made up their graphs on old stencil set. They put them on the copy stand, they took a photograph on ectochrome film and ran down to the lab and had it developed and went to the science meeting and used these slides.

[6:14] What was that?

Audience Member: [6:15] [off-mic comment]

Dr. Olson: [6:16] Carved on stone tools. It was exactly carved on stone tablets. Precisely. In 1979, I was at the East Coast Benthic Ecology Meetings when Dr. Jim Porter from the University of Georgia gave a presentation there and he had these slides that had a light blue background, a soothing blue and white letters and texts.

[6:35] And I was standing in the lobby as a number of scientists were standing in a small circle, scoffing at who does this guy think he is with all of his flashy showmanship. He’s like a used car salesman. Yada, Yada. Yada.

[6:46] I swear to you it was like a bunch of church elders complaining about some kid who showed up with his hair combed the wrong way for church. And those same scientists today, I guarantee you are giving PowerPoint presentations in which they are using what’s become the convention, soothing blue background with white letters and text.

[7:04] That change has happened despite the resistance that it was initially met with. And this is the hypocrisy of so many scientists. I hate to say it, but it’s a lot of older scientists that are bucking against changes in communication right now.

[7:17] Well, sorry. These things happen. It’s an escalation process that happens. The fact is science, by its very nature, is conservative, is resistant to change. It probably needs to be to be careful and cautious and not get too reckless. In fact, willingness to accept change will probably be the same way forever.

[7:32] So, that’s anecdote number one. And here’s anecdote number two, this is the omega element from just the last few weeks. Last September, I got contacted by some folks at the National Academy of Science who are putting together a project called the Science and Entertainment Exchange.

[7:47] They asked me if I was interested in interviewing to be the director of it. What this is is a major Hollywood producer contact National Academy of Science said I’m so interested in the effective communication of science that my friends and I are going to give you several hundred thousand dollars to try to put together a program where you will bring in more scientists to consult on these big budget movies to get the science more accurate, which is a really important admirable goal.

[8:10] I’ve been around Hollywood for 15 to 20 years now. I’ve watched a lot of major science organizations come out there and do the most stupid of stunts, wasting large amounts of money, not understanding Hollywood. All the people in Hollywood gladly taking their money saying ’Oh yeah, we’re going to do these great things’ and amounting to nothing.

[8:25] This is the first project I’ve ever seen that I really think is got their act together. They do understand, in part because it’s been initiated by people from within Hollywood. So, They had a big event in November symposium I went to, they brought in six big scientists to speak, It was really excellent, and then, the director, was talking to me, and she said ’We want to do a small event with just two really super-star science speakers, you know that are great, great, speakers."

[8:46] I gave her two names. She looked them up, and one of them... She left me a phone message, she said ’OK, we found the first guy, some clips of him speaking videos that are online, and we agree he’s incredible speaker. But, the other guy we couldn’t find anything for, can you send us some tape on him?"

[9:00] When I heard that message, that phrase just caused me whiplash. I called her back and said, "Do you realize who says this phrase, send us a tape on somebody?" That is traditionally what casting directors in Hollywood say to agents in Hollywood when they want to consider a major actor, and don’t want to take up their time bringing them in. They call the agents say, ’Send us some tape on the person.’ And what gets sent over is a demo reel that is little scenes of that actor doing their best work. And they sit down, and they evaluate it based on that.

[9:27] Well, what is, is the convergence of the science world on Hollywood. And this is going to continue in this way. And this is an escalation, inexorable movement, and you’re going to see more and more prominent scientists begin to put together little demo reels, because they’re all getting video taped now, giving their presentations, and they’re collecting the video tapes, and they’re beginning to realize ’You know, this, this tape is great because they lit it really well, the lighting was nice, and the sound was clear, and everything like that. This one even though is the exact same tape, the exact same talk, the exact same substance isn’t worth using because the lighting and the audio is so bad.’

[9:58] The elements of style vary when the substance is constant, and the effectiveness of communication ends up being different.

[10:04] These are the sorts of variables that are starting to get thought about by scientists, of all different levels. Basically that one scientist I did go over, and sit down with him, and we pulled some of his tapes together, and we cut a little demo reel, and it’s all happening. The language is going to get more and more like Hollywood, with all these elements of superficiality of communication, what are you going to do about it? Are you going to try and draw some lines, and say ’we refuse to be so superficial as to worry about how we look on camera," and things like that. That’s not going to happen. So again, I’m just the messenger in terms of these sorts of things.

[10:34] But, given that, what I’m trying to do is share some of the knowledge I’ve gained in the last few years, with my involvement with film making and that sort of stuff. So, here’s another element of change that has taken place, which is that last summer, as we got ready to premier "Sizzle," I ended up that week... On MPR Talk of the nation I did a segment. That had three different parts to it. And it was hosted by Neil Conan, and he titled it "Cutting Through the Green Fog of Environmental Media."

[10:59] And this is perhaps one of the most important of all dynamics in communication right now is no sooner we have people like me saying this media stuff can, and is important, a lot of people with good intentions are now spewing out mountains of too much media that is poorly composed, put together. People are getting lost in the whole thing... The broad audience is getting really tired of environmental media.

[11:19] And in fact, what I’ve run into, is the film distributors don’t even want to touch it anymore. Last summer we finished "Sizzle" and started to get good reviews, and things like that, I talked to some of the distributors and they said ’You know, we hear it’s a good film, but nobody wants environmental media.’ That’s a real problem. There’s a lot of different reasons for it.

[11:35] On this segment that they did, they had Al Gore on first, and the host Neil Conan - this is on our website, by the way, you can go there, SizzleTheMovie.com, and find your way to the press page; it’s got the link to this thing. And I think it’s really interesting, because the host, Neil Conan, was so sharp, and he put it to Al and said ’OK, Al, you know you’ve had your few minutes of talk on global warming, what have you got for us that’s new, that’s going to reinvigorate people?’ And he hardly, he didn’t really answer the question. Then he talked to his two media guys, They didn’t have much of an answer.

[12:02] And then when he came to me, regardless of whatever I said, he began it by saying ’Well, here’s a guy that’s at least got a comedy. That could be kind of interesting.’ That is the justification for this crazy movie "Sizzle." So, lots of scientists are upset about Bleh Bleh bleh, they hate the movie. Fact is, at least nothing else, it’s an experiment, it’s an effort to innovate. That’s what you do when you hit a brick wall. You don’t sit there and keep pounding against the wall doing the same thing over and over again, you start conducting some experiments and trying to innovate. So That’s what I tried to do with that.

[12:30] So, this guy, bit off for himself a very ambitious goal, probably I’d say in the mid nineties, because he locked onto global warming in a big way in 97’ after Kyoto. The fact is, the public needs to understand now that he has failed in his mission. The past two years I’ve been saying that in talks, people have gotten upset with me and said ’How can you say that about Al Gore? He’s a wonderful man.’ He’s a wonderful guy, very admirable what he’s tried to do, but the fact is that he has failed badly in what he really had for his goals.

[12:59] Fortunately, last November, he finally helped me out on that issue, by saying those words, verbatim, quoted in the "New York Times" he said, ’I feel in a sense I’ve failed badly, because even though there’s a greater sense of awareness, there’s not anything anywhere close to an appropriate sense of urgency.’

[13:14] So, he carved of two goals. Number one was to increase the amount of awareness of global warming, which he has succeeded in a huge way, and that’s why he’d be admired. Then, the second goal was trying to change people’s minds. And he did nothing to move the needle on that. All the polls show that.

[13:27] Now, and I have to say if you look at that quote, that’s really a tribute to how amazing Al Gore is, that he’s such an honest guy, he knows the truth is so important. I guarantee you none of his handlers would have ever suggested that he say something like that. Anybody involved in publicity and advertising would say ’Never go negative. Never concede anything Al. Don’t ever say you failed at anything. That’s terrible.’ But, sometimes that builds your credibility with the mass audience that they realize that because you’re so honest, you’re actually willing to share the truth of what’s going on.

[13:55] But, here is the truth. I don’t know if you can read this, but what this says is ’little increase in America’s global warming worries’ and it says, ’While 61% of Americans say the affects of global warming have already begun, just a little more than a third say they worry about it a great deal, a percentage that is roughly the same as the one "Gallup" measured nineteen years ago.’

[14:14] Now I’ve also talked to pollsters from Stanford University and ABC News, They’ve all said the same thing. Nothing has changed, the Al Gore movie had zero effect on the overall level of willingness to consider this to be an urgent issue. What Al Gore has managed to do unfortunately is help polarize the issue so that now more democrats are concerned about it, less republicans are - that element going on.

[14:36] There is one hope in this issue, I think right now, one cause for hope, and that is this new voice that’s been brought into it. And he’s so far in my opinion, as a communicator just gets an absolute A+, he understands these things far better than most of the democratic party, and I really do think there’s hope and of course he’s appointed a lot of great people in science positions. So, there is reason for hope, here’s a quote from Joe Rom of Climateprogress.org last November saying ’What we most need now is an educator and persuader in chief,’ and this is the essence of it. We need somebody who can get beyond the awareness thing and actually figure out ways, how do you persuade people to view this as an important issue? And that is the big challenge.

[15:17] So, I’ve written this book, and I hope that it has some elements of a little bit of techniques of, not persuasion but how you actually get through to people, that’s the goal of it. The title is "Don’t Be Such A Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style." There are five chapters to it. These are the five chapters - It’s a relatively simple book, it’ll be out in September, should be a fairly quick read for everybody, I hope. It’s almost a little handbook, it’s not a heavy academic treatment, or anything like that.

[15:44] Here are the four chapters, so the first four are admonitions. And it’s really, the advice is geared towards you know, hardcore scientists as a target audience to shoot at, but really I think it’s written in a broad style that lots of people in all different walks of life I hope will get some use out of it - anybody that has to deal with anybody that’s caught up in technical fields.

[16:05] And I should say you know the title, the title is not "Don’t be a scientist" it’s "Don’t be such a Scientist." You can write the same book for almost any profession, you could write Don’t be such a Lawyer, such a politician. It’s really about the bad habits that happen when you really get focused and intense in a profession. The core of the book comes mostly from the experiences that I had moving to Hollywood in ’94, mostly from - and acting of course, that I’ll talk about in a minute.

[16:30] The four chapters are - Don’t be so cerebral, Don’t be so literal minded, Don’t be such a poor story teller, Don’t be so unlikable, and then the fifth chapter is the big uplifting message of encouragement, which is ’be the voice of science.’ A lot of what the fifth chapter focuses on is Carl Sagan, how is it he was so effective as a mass communicator. A lot of the answer is all four of those rules. He was the exception to all of those. He was hugely likeable, a great storyteller.

[16:55] He wasn’t so literal-minded that he was unwilling to go on Johnny Carson, and try and communicate to the broad audience, and make silly banter. And he wasn’t so cerebral that he just sat back and analyzed everything.

[17:04] He actually did things, and he is to be admired. There’s a lot to be learned from him.

[17:10] For this talk and limitations of time, I’m just going to a few little excerpts from the first chapter, and then really focus in on the third chapter on storytelling. Here’s the first little tidbit, the first message that I start the book off with - don’t be so cerebral. It all begins, for me, with this.

[17:25] This horrible person... It was an acting teacher in Los Angeles. When I moved there to start film school, a friend of mine, who was a screenwriter, hooked me up with her acting program, and got me into her class, actually.

[17:37] The first night, she unloaded herself on me in front of all the students and all the class, and ripped me to pieces with the most amazingly foul language. She just sat there and tore into me.

[17:47] I was 38 years old. All the rest of the kids were all in their early twenties. They’re all laughing their heads off, as the old professor dude was standing up there getting ripped apart. She was screaming at me about, "You are nothing but a pointy-headed intellectual. You think too much. I’ve had people like you in these classes before.

[18:02] "I’m sick and tired of your type. I’m too old to break you. I could break you, if I wanted to, but I just have no interest, and I’m done with your type. So that’s it. I want you out of this classroom, off the premises in less than three minutes, or I’m calling the police, and having you arrested for trespassing."

[18:16] Nobody warned me that I was going to get something like this. And, believe me, it was much louder than that, and with all kinds of profanity laced through it. I was just standing there for five minutes, taking this tirade. Then, it finally calmed down, and I started to sit back down.

[18:29] She starts screaming again, "You don’t get it. Get out the door. Get out, right now." So, I just backed out of the door like this, "OK, what did I do wrong?"

[18:36] I spent the next day or two talking to all of these friends of mine in Hollywood, and eventually got to the bottom of it. My buddy that referred me to her said, "Oh, yeah, I forgot to tell you. She’s a real monster."

[18:45] [laughter]

Dr. Olson: [18:46] But, she’s one of the very best teachers of acting in all of Hollywood. She’s still there today, still teaching. She works with all the best actors.

[18:53] I went back. We cleared it all up, more or less, although she was never pleasant to me. I stayed in this thing for two years. By the end of two years, I had a throbbing headache, and was done with it. That was about ’96.

[19:04] I left, and I thought, maybe I’ll get a few things out of that. Didn’t really know. It wasn’t until 2002, when I came back around to working with academics that some of the things that she had said night after night began to echo back in my mind.

[19:15] What I was seeing was, when we started our Shifting Baselines Project, working with these conservation groups that tend to be run by lots of highly educated people with Master’s and Ph.D. degrees, and things like that... They’re very smart. But, I was seeing all these campaigns of communication they were putting together.

[19:30] They were packed full of information, devoid of humor, devoid of any genuine, human emotion, and human voice and sincerity. Not even close to anything that would be called sex appeal, or anything like that. They were just information campaigns that they were putting out to the general public, and then couldn’t figure out why they were failing over and over again with this sort of stuff.

[19:52] Of the many things that she taught us, one simple rule began to echo back to me. This is what I start the book with, because I think it’s so powerful and profound, and it is the essence of mass communication; what it’s all about. It’s also the core of an essay that I have in Orion Magazine that came out this month, and just yesterday, got posted on the web, and I’m getting lots of nice comments on that.

[20:10] But, here’s what it’s all about. This is the secret to mass communication that she told us night after night, which is that, when it comes to trying to connect with the entire audience, when you are an actor, and, really, communicator, science communicators, anybody like that, they’re all basically doing the same thing as an actor is doing, which is trying to reach people, and trying to get their attention.

[20:32] She would say, for an actor, if you’re up on the stage, you have four organs that are important in trying to reach the entire audience. The first of those organs is your head, of course. The second organ is your heart. The third organ is your gut. And the fourth organ is the sex organs.

[20:50] The object of acting is to move the process down out of your head, into your heart with sincerity, into your gut with humor and intuition, and if you are so endowed, all the way down to the sex organs, with sex appeal.

[21:02] That is the way, in all honesty, you could have truck drivers, football players, and all sorts of people like that in your audience. If you can put some pictures up there of naked people, you’ll start to get their attention.

[21:14] Sex sells. That’s the ultimate last resort, but the key point is that if you bypass all four of these things and retreat all the way back just to information up in the cerebrum, and logic, rationality, and things like that, you’re only going to reach a small sliver of the mass audience.

[21:30] That is the fundamental dilemma that you face. It means that if you’re going to get involved with mass communication, you have to digest this, absorb it, and understand the consequences of it.

[21:39] You’re seeing it talked about more and more these days. The one thing that a lot of the pundits are saying, the one possible downfall of this guy is that he’s very smart, and he may have the tendency to be too cerebral and too caught up in his head, and have some problems with action and things like that.

[21:54] We shall see. I don’t see any other major shortcomings in the guy.

[21:58] At the other end of the spectrum, down in the lower organs, as we already talked about, there’s no doubt that was the pathway of communication that she was exploiting. So, that’s the spectrum.

[22:08] The same thing got talked about in the divide between Kerry and Bush. Kerry was very cerebral. Bush always talked about coming from the heart, from the gut, and things like that.

[22:16] That’s the core dynamic, which I’m going to come back to, toward the end of this talk, and mention that. And let’s see here. Onward we go, to chapter 3. [laughs]

[22:30] The third chapter is called "Don’t Be Such a Poor Storyteller." This is a fundamental dilemma for scientists. Scientists have a hard time with telling stories. It’s in their nature to not tell big stories, because science is about accuracy, and keeping everything accurate without having to compromise yourself, in terms of constructing big stories.

[22:48] There’s a tendency for storytellers to fabricate things and bend the truth. That’s the very worst thing in the world, if you’re a scientist. As a result, that’s not one of the goals, traditionally, of scientists. Yet, storytelling, we know, is, over the course of 2000 years, the most powerful way to reach a broad audience, still, in this day and age.

[23:05] It is important, and it needs to be understood. And guess what? Scientists, whether they want to admit it or not, are storytellers from day one. Everything that you do in science revolves around telling stories about what it is that you do.

[23:19] Let me start by talking about a few of the basic dynamics of what makes up a story, and how stories work. This is from a book by Robert McKee, who’s like the guru of storytelling and screenwriting in Hollywood. Storytelling, of course, is the essence of all the big-budget Hollywood movies.

[23:34] The title of his book is, "Story." In there, he talks about this triangle of plot structure, of the different types of plot. See if I can relate this to you. I think it’s a very powerful and important element in understanding the relationship of story telling and science.

[23:51] At the top up here, we have "classical design," which he calls, "art plot." What that refers to is the typical kind of mythological story that you see in the big-budget movies. That’s what they’re always trying to capture, with "Star Wars," and "Lord of the Rings," and all those types of movies.

[24:08] The key elements that characterize art plot are standard story, single hero, setting out into the world, confronting some external force. The single protagonist, confronting a single antagonist, going into battle. The story ends up having very clear causes. You understand why the person has to go out there and do this.

[24:28] The story ends with a clear wrap-up, so that you feel totally satisfied when he finally defeats the antagonist. The time is linear. The conflict is external. The hero is not sitting there agonizing over whether or not he should go fight the bad guy. There’s just no doubt about it. And everything is active, active, active.

[24:45] That is your perfect story. The biggest of all audiences can connect with that. That is why, over time, that’s the one mythic structure that everybody seeks in the big-budget movies in Hollywood.

[24:54] They have armies of people there that are in story development, that are all trying to take scripts, and move scripts closer and closer to that idealizing. That’s the formulaic plot that you always hear about.

[25:04] Down here at the other end of the spectrum, are these two variations on that. So, the first one here is called - Mini Plot, or Minimalism. And this is basically the more or less the opposite of all those sorts of things. This is a story that ends up with an open ending. You know you never do defeat the bad guys at the end of the movie. It’s just like: Ah, they’re still out there and this goes on and on and leaves you with a kind of unsettled feeling.

[25:27] The conflict can be internal where the hero knows the bad guy’s out there but sits and argues with himself in the mirror about, you know, do I have the courage to actually confront the hero or not? And is torn apart by all this internal conflict and struggle. Or there’s multiple heroes and the story’s all over the place, and the protagonist, the hero, is passive and instead of going out there and fighting things he’s just getting kicked around by the world. And you watch a whole movie about that.

[25:51] And there are lots of artsy movies that have this sort of thing. And this, by the way, quite often is closer to what the real world is like and that’s why those artsy movies are really great because you watch and you go, ’God, that’s just like my life!’ And that really brings it home.

[26:04] And then the third form over here is called Anti Plot or Anti Structure, and that’s just stuff like Monty Python movies that have no plot whatsoever, and everything flies all over the place and there’s lots of coincidences, time is nutty, jumps around and everything is inconsistent.

[26:17] But, the way it relates to the world of science is that - this is doing science down here; this is giving a talk at a meeting up there. This is what you’re forced to do. There’s a famous paper by the Nobel Laureate P.D. Metawar in 1960s called the scientific paper is a fraud. And towards the end of his life he was consumed by this dilemma that scientists face, which is you’re told to be this objectivist creature that goes out there and you know always just reports things exactly the way they were.

[26:43] But, the fact is, when you write a paper you can’t report every single thing you did. You have to sit down and reconstruct things and move things around in the timeline in particular. And you find out that there’s ways to put these things together so that other people will be able to understand them better. So, your actual research is placed down here. As you start to write your paper or work on your talk, you slowly start to move it this way.

[27:05] And then you go to a scientific meeting and you walk out in the lobby and everybody is buzzing about some talk that some guy just gave that was unbelievably good, and somebody says, ’He told this incredible story about the system he works on,’ yada, yada. Well, that’s the first thing who through either a lot of hard work or some natural ability is able to take the whole mess of what they were doing for research and structure it into a story that everybody could stay with and follow.

[27:28] That’s why the story-telling stuff is so important, and so important to me that at the end of March we’re going to start a series of workshops that I’m teaming up with a screenwriting instructor who did a workshop that I did 20 years ago that is still the greatest two days of instruction I’ve ever had. And I tracked him down a few months ago and in Monterrey we’re going to do a first run of this thing. He and I are going to do an intensive two-day workshop with a bunch of graduate students there at the Monterrey Institute of Graduate Studies. And the title of it is ’The Story in Science.’ And what it’s about is trying to get everybody to understand you already tell stories, you already comply with Three Act structure.

[27:59] When you, as a scientist, sit down to write a scientific paper, there is a convention that already exists that is Three Act structure. The First Act is the introduction of your paper, the Second Act is the materials and results, and the Third Act is the discussion. And you already are doing this stuff whether you realize it or not. And so if you could just sit up and realize it and start looking to all this knowledge that exists in the world to story telling that can make you a better communicator in terms of those things.

[28:24] So the reason that I get so worked up on this topic is because I had this life-altering experience in making the movie you saw last night, ’Flock of Dodos.’ And in a nutshell, what happened was - heard about this issue, got fired up on it, based on all my improv acting techniques I knew how to value spontaneity. So, instead of spending a year trying to raise funding to put together this careful movie, I said I want to go capture some lightning in a bottle.

[28:48] Grabbed a crew, flew out to Kansas, spent a week filming interviews there. Went to the East coast, spent a week filming interviews there. Went back to L.A. and then spent six months trying to put it all together into something that an audience could actually enjoy and watch and I made this comment last night watching the movie again for the thousandth time, just thanking God, I’m so thankful it did come together in some way the audience could watch and enjoy because, in the beginning, it was a mess and that’s what this is about.

[29:11] We started to work on it, made a first cut, assembly cut. Holed up everybody to watch that. They all said, ’Great raw material, doesn’t add up to anything.’ The next Friday I had everybody come back together again to watch that cut that had this sequence of the different scenes and, two hours long, flipped the lights on, and turned to the seven or eight people in the room, and said, ’What do you think?’ And they all had frowns on their faces and they all had pages of notes and they all had giant suggestions, you know - ’it doesn’t work,’ ’it doesn’t add up to anything,’ ’I mean with this section here and there they all disagree with each other.’

[29:38] Third week, same thing happened with that cut. By the fourth week I was running out of time and patience and we got into a giant fight at that screening at which I told everybody, I disagree, this is an excellent film, I’m just about done with it. And they all kind of got up and marched out and said, ’Well, good. You can have your mess, but it’s still not watchable and nobody’s going to want to go to a screening of this thing.’

[29:59] So, I was in a deep, dark depression when they left and basically locked myself in the editing suite for three solid days. Really the darkest experience of my entire life, and did the stereotypical thing of writing all those scenes out on note cards, putting all across the floor, thinking, thinking, thinking, focusing, focusing, focusing, and somewhere in all the darkness it finally hit me. A very simple little story, and it’s a story that conforms with this mythic structure, this art plot I’m talking about.

[30:23] And it’s the story of a person who sets out on a journey to defend a damsel from a dragon that lives next door. He confronts the dragon, finds out the dragon’s just a harmless little teddy bear and then realizes that the real threat is this evil empire in the Pacific Northwest.

[30:37] And that simple story, that’s the underpinnings of the movie that you watched last night. And in fact, when you look at it, it’s broken into three act structure. And it opens with a prologue that introduces my mother. The First Act is a whole bunch background exposition and at the end, about 20 minutes in, right exactly where it should be by Three Act structure I say, ’In order to understand this movement, we have to find out who was behind it.’ That makes me want to go to Kansas to go confront this, or get to know this lawyer that lived next-door to my mother who is a big advocate of television design.

[31:05] The whole Second Act is running around Kansas searching, getting background on the lawyer John Calvert. Finally, at the end of the Second Act, I sit down with him and then realize he’s not the threat. And then the Third Act begins, the whole tone shifts when I say I came to this realization that the Real threat was the discovery of the Pacific Northwest. The Third Act is all about that.

[31:24] As soon as I re-cut the movie that week it only took one day to re-cut it into that form. That Friday we sat down, we watched it, I put the lights on, everybody was smiling and somebody said, ’You just told a story. That was fun.’

[31:35] And that was a life-changing experience for me. From then on every screening of the movie was fine. Everyone previous that was miserable, there was a magic to story telling that we discovered at that point by doing that. And that’s why it’s so important. I mean, it’s really not much different than doing repeated versions of editing your own research papers.

[31:53] So the bottom line is, had I called it quits over on the right side there with the first cut that would have been OK for academics, the second cut would have been OK for teachers, the third one I could have self-distributed and sold a few copies, a fourth one might have ended up on PBS. But, by pushing through that darkness, we ended up with a very broad story that ended up on a television network that features shows about lesbians and marijuana smoking and sex addiction and all these other things that characterize the broader audience. That’s where Dodos ended up airing, starting in May of 2007. And the emails that I get every time it airs on ShowTime comes not from academics, it comes from a lot of religious people, which says a lot about they’re watching.

[32:34] But, it really has enabled me to reach out to that broader audience, which is exactly what my goal was, but it took that sort of effort.

[32:42] So that then leads us then to the subject of global warming. And this person here is named Laurie David. She was married to Larry David, the creator of Curb Your Enthusiasm, or of Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm. And she is a force of nature. She is a producer of movies in Hollywood, and in 2006 she produced two movies that had to do with global warming. And these two movies, side by side, are perfect case study in the trade off and the dilemma that the world of science faces today in terms of trying to communicate to the broad audience.

[33:11] So here’s the first movie. It’s called ’Too Hot Not to Handle.’ How many of you have seen this movie? [pause] How many of you have heard this movie? [laughs] Crickets? Perfect. It aired on HBO for earth day in 2006, and nobody heard of it. It is packed full of scientists. The science in it was 1000% accurate and nobody watched it.

[33:35] Two months later, she released this other movie - it stared this guy, you all heard of it and probably most of you have seen it - ’An Inconvenient Truth.’ This movie has a bunch of errors in it. And that’s not just me saying it. There was an article in the New York Times a year and a half ago where they surveyed a lot of the major climate scientists, including James Hansen, and they all said "Yes, it’s got some substantial errors all the way through it. But, the overall picture is very accurate. And he did a great job considering how complicated the issue is."

[34:01] But, without a doubt, there are some mistakes in it. Some of which didn’t need to be made. But, it’s deeply flawed with those sorts of errors. So, we end up with these two movies, that is all most like a controlled experiment, and, which would you rather have your name associated with? The one that was accurate, but not popular. Or the one that was popular but not accurate.

[34:22] That’s the dilemma you face. And the fact is... I’ve heard from sources that Laurie David said when she finished this movie, the scientists had so bogged down this movie that she said to them "Thank you very much, but we don’t need you for this next movie. This topic is too important. We’ve got to get it done quickly. We can’t run it through all these channels of editing it. We just got to get it out there."

[34:41] And it changed the course of human history. It is so important. It got the Oscar and the Noble. It deserved all that sort of stuff. But, it’s got these flaws. What do you say to that as a scientist? It’s less than 100% accurate. You are not trained to deal with that in the world of science.

[34:55] So, that’s the dilemma that you face. Which of these two is the more admirable, better and important project? It’s a tough, tough decision.

[35:02] And that leaves me then to my last little bit here, which is about my movie that hopefully some of you will come to later today - Sizzle, and the frazzle that we had about it last summer when it was released. So, I talked early on about those different human elements. And if we look at the head for information, the heart for emotion and for the gut for humor; here are four different documentary features in the last couple of years, and doing my highly subjective little analysis of these three elements for each of these four features.

[35:34] So, the first one is the NOVA special, which I guess you guys are going to show in a few weeks as part of this whole film series. And when you look at that film it has a ton of information to it, virtually no emotion and no humor. It’s what you expect. I tried to watch it. I watched 20 minutes and I found it really boring. Sorry. I can talk at length about that. I think, it’s boring. A lot of scientists didn’t think so. They really loved how much information it had. So, it spoke to a certain demographic very, very well, which is great.

[36:03] The second movie is Al Gore’s movie, An Inconvenient Truth. It’s really admirable how much information he packed in there - all the graphs and things like that. The filmmaker Davis Guggenheim has talked about how they tried to humanize Al by having him show some emotion. He told the story about his sister who died and his son who got in an accident. And he tried to have some humor. He told some barbed jokes that really they could have done without. But that’s the allocation for that film.

[36:26] Third one is Dodos that you saw last night. And I intentionally didn’t put very information in Dodos. And I did put some emotion in there. I had the tribute to Steve Guel, and I had my mother in there and then all kind of silly humor with the dancing dodos and things like that.

[36:40] And the fourth one is Sizzle. And with Sizzle, I very consciously and intentionally said to everybody "We are not putting hardly any information in this thing. The whole field of global warming is characterized by too much information for starters. Everybody’s already been beaten to death by the Al Gore movie. We got to do something a little lighter. So, we are going to put very little information in there. Instead, we are going to try pack in tons of humor and even a little bit of emotion towards the end of the movie."

[37:06] And the net result is that when you look at the response of the science community to these four films. You go to the blogs and read the comments. You find scientists are just euphoric about Judgment Day. An Inconvenient Truth, they are affectionate about it. They really do like the movie despite its flaws. Flock of Dodos, they were respectful of it. There was some criticism. And Sizzle created a lynch mob.

Audience Member: [37:28] [off-mic comment]

Dr. Olson: [37:29] OK. And that’s what I dealt with on the blogs last year. And, in fact, the real dynamic for Sizzle is characterized by these two major reviews that were done on it. So, Nature Magazine published their review and they just dumped on it. They called it "Climate comedy falls flat." And down here the Reviewer says "Director of the well received 2006 documentary on intelligent design Flock of Dodos, Olson, is no stranger to portraying society’s complex response to science. Sadly, Sizzle’s mix of styles confuses his message.

[37:57] Notice, "thrown by the mix of styles." The movie is in fact woven of three different genres - mockumentary, documentary, and reality. And this is what happens with analytical people and with scientist in particular. They can’t get beyond those three genres and the movie really irritates them.

[38:12] In contrast, what we already knew from our advanced screenings in the previous fall was that all of our groups of friends in Hollywood with no technical background just laughed at the movie and had fun and were hit by the emotion towards the end. So, we got a great review on variety which is the "be all and the end all" if you are a filmmaker. You don’t really get too upset about Nature’s review of your film. What really matters is variety, because that determines whether or not somebody who is going to want to buy your film someday.

[38:36] And we got a great review on variety. And here’s one of the things that said, "The film emerges more skillfully than a Flock of Dodos as an exceedingly clever vehicle for making science engaging to a general audience."

[38:46] So, there we have polar opposites - The review from the science community versus the broader audience of variety. And that of sort where in-depth standing and the experiences have been straight down the line. I have shown it to groups of scientists who have just sat there hardly laughing and just telling me flat out "I do not like the movie that you made here." And then we shown it to big groups of undergraduates, who seemed to have just had fun with it, gotten some laughter out of it and rolled with it.

[39:10] This is trying to break down some of these variables in terms of this mass communication to get a little bit of understanding to it all. And in this book, you know, I have the five chapters. And the first four chapters are beating the reader down about "Don’t do this. Don’t do this. And don’t do this." But, the last chapter is very sincere. And it’s about communicating to the broad audience. And I actually spoke with Carl Sagan’s widow, Ann Druyan, and asked her about "How was it at the end with him?" And she said "Despite of getting beaten by the science community..." - which did happen later in his career - "...he thoroughly enjoyed his career as a science communicator."

[39:42] And it’s the same thing as I mention - when you look at his characteristics, it’s as if he read that rule book and knew what those variables were. And that’s a lot to what the secret was to how he communicated so successfully.

[39:54] So, where we are right now in the science communication stuff is that it’s at a revolutionary stage right now - and just the last two to three years. In terms of writing, we now have all these blogs that have cropped up in the last two to three years. And a whole new voice for the communication of science which sometimes goes a little haywire, but nevertheless it’s pretty interesting because it’s such a raw unfiltered voice that’s never been there before.

[40:15] And then, visually, we now have YouTube. And lots and lots of science people are starting to figure out how to shoot and edit their own videos and post them on YouTube and communicate through visual images. And between the two, it’s created an entire new dynamic for the communication of science that’s going to continue to change very rapidly.

[40:32] And the only question is whether these large organizations can begin to figure that out. And it’s not clear that they can, because - by the way, you know, that whole dynamic has happened with the U.S. military. They have had a hard time with their communication dynamics figuring out how to deal with YouTube and blogs and things like that, that happened on a daily basis and which kind of circumvent their entire so careful controlled process of communication.

[40:53] So, they are dealing with the same basic dynamic. But the one thing I can assure you of is that in the next two or three years you are going to hear lots and lots about science communication. There are a lot of other books coming out next year on science communication in addition to mine. Lots of these big organizations are beginning to identify this as a priority. And the basic rule is people are realizing that if you do not communicate your science effectively yourself, other people, such as these groups that you see in both Dodos and Sizzle, who have their own agendas are going to take your research and communicate it their way.

[41:21] That’s what you are up against with the whole thing. And that is what my message is for today. So be interested in questions with us. Thanks.

[41:29] [applause]

Announcer: [41:33] This lecture is part of the Arizona State University Darwin Distinguished Lecture Series. And is sponsored by the ASU office of the President, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the School of Life Sciences, The Center for Biology and Society and is a production of Grass Roots Studio.

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Transcription by CastingWords