'Houston, We Have a Narrative'

Author discusses new book about narrative and what Hollywood has to offer science.

September 23, 2015

The world of science has long been dogged with communication problems, like how to convince the world, for example, that humans really are changing the planet’s climate. Or that we really did evolve slowly over time rather than springing forth suddenly and fully formed. What’s missing, Randy Olson argues in his new book, Houston, We Have a Narrative (University of Chicago Press), is a nuanced understanding of narrative. A deep-seated grasp of and appreciation for narrative, Olson writes, would give scientists the tools to not only argue more persuasively, but produce better work as well. And Hollywood, argues the former marine biology professor and current writer and film director, is the place with answers. Olson earned his Ph.D. at Harvard University, taught at the University of New Hampshire and has since left science to direct films, including Flock of Dodos and Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy. He's also written a number of books, including a collection of essays called The Benshi and Don't Be Such a Scientist.

Q: In your book, you argue the world of science right now is “narratively deficient.” What does that mean and why is it a problem?

A: By narratively deficient I mean scientists fail to realize and teach how ubiquitous narrative is in their profession, not just in the communication of science, but in the scientific method as well. I define narrative as “the events that occur in the search for a solution to a problem.” That is what science is -- the posing of problems then the search for their solutions. The failure to make scientists aware of how pervasive narrative dynamics are in science is now resulting not just in poor communication with the public, but also a proliferation of false positives (a narrative dynamic) and underreporting of null results (equally narrative). There are a number of studies in the past five years bringing to light the proliferation of these last two problems. We now live in a world of information saturation very different from 50 years ago. It’s time to update the thinking.

Q: The solution you propose boils down to a template you call ABT. What does that stand for and where did you get the idea?

A: The ABT comes from an animated character with a bad attitude named Eric Cartman. Actually, not from him, but from his co-creators. In 2011 Comedy Central aired a documentary about the making of South Park in which Trey Parker, one of the co-creators, told about his extremely simple rule of editing that improves narrative structure. He calls it his Rule of Replacing. He said once he gets a first draft of the script, he goes back into the text and tries to replace the word “and” with either “but” or “therefore.” Every time he can do this, the storytelling gets better. When I heard this I was stunned. Despite five writing classes in film school, I had never heard story editing conveyed so simply. I set to work researching it and eventually shaped it into a single sentence template consisting of “And, But, Therefore.” What I found is that it tracks all the way back to the Greeks and Hegel, the philosopher who formalized the Hegelian dialectic of thesis, antithesis, synthesis, which underpins everything from argumentation to logic to story to (as I have mentioned) the scientific method. The ABT ends up being the application of that knowledge to narrative.

Q: What is an example that stands out to you of a place in the world of science right now that could really benefit from nonnarratively deficient culture? And how so?

A: Climate change. The first major effort to communicate the problem of global warming to the public was unfortunately not delivered with very good narrative content. It was Al Gore’s movie, An Inconvenient Truth. The movie was a lecture in the dreaded “and, and, and” format. As a result, a decade later, just about no one wants to watch it again. Imagine if there had been a climate movie like Titanic, where people wanted to watch it over and over again, not for the message but for the story, through which they would pick up the message. Our brains are programmed to receive information best when it has proper narrative structure. Neurophysiology work by Uri Hasson at Princeton and his colleagues shows that material with strong narrative structure activates much more of the brain than nonnarratively structured material. Climate change is a very complex topic -- too complex to deliver to the public nonnarratively. It takes enormous energy and focus to find the narrative in material, but the payback is huge, as audiences find it more understandable, more enjoyable, and they retain it so much better.

Q: Is it possible too much focus on narrative could exacerbate some of the problems you discuss (exaggeration in scientific papers, for example)? And if so, how could that be avoided?

A: No. Narrative is endlessly challenging. I recently asked screenwriter Eric Roth, who won an Oscar for writing the Forrest Gump screenplay, if, at age 70, he feels like he’s finally completely “got it” on narrative. He smiled and said to this day with every new script he writes he’s still learning new things about how narrative works. No one has it completely figured out -- especially because it is a moving target -- as our communication dynamics change, so too does the way in which narrative works. It is difficult to master and yet essential to be familiar with the basics because it underlies these central problems such as the allure of “telling big stories.” In 2013 Jon Ioannidis of Stanford said, “Most biomedical results reported today are false positives.” That is a huge problem, at the core of which is the desire to tell big stories. The best way to prevent scientists from accidentally making this mistake is to get them to realize they are human and their brains are wired to tell big stories. In 2013 MIT researcher Yarden Katz argued in an editorial in Nature Methods titled “Against Storytelling in Scientific Results” that scientists should avoid narrative. The irony is that he opens his essay using the very ABT narrative structure I am promoting. Narrative is everywhere. Don’t fight it, learn it, co-opt it and become aware of its potential dark side if used dishonestly.

Q: Another prominent template in your book is AAA (the nonnarrative and, and, and…), which you say can sometimes be adequate but never superior. Is there a place for AAA, though? Can it always be avoided?

A: Doing better than the AAA structure is sort of a nonfalsifiable premise. For any set of material there might exist a way to reach beyond AAA to achieve ABT structure. You can’t prove there isn’t. Which gets a little frustrating. But this is what editing is all about -- the endless process of revising material to make it work better. Which brings us back to the South Park guys. I sent them the chapter of the book where I tell about being inspired by their Rule of Replacing. Matt Stone wrote back the following wonderful endorsement of the importance of narrative structure:

“If there is anything Trey and I work hard on, it’s structure. It’s so important and so, so hard to get right. There [are] a lot of formulae and techniques and ways to get there but ultimately like anything creative it’s a gut thing. We beat ourselves up so that causality is really there or at least emotionally implied …. Then we put some dick jokes and poop stuff in it and voilà!”


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