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When facts aren't enough

Scientist-turned-filmmaker Randy Olson thinks scientists could use a little help getting their message out to the public. He presented the keynote, "Narrative is Everything,” to the scientists at the Gateways 2019 conference in San Diego, where he argued that effectively communicating scientific results to the public in a way that they care about is part of a scientist’s job.

You quit marine biology to become a filmmaker. And now you’re combining science with storytelling. Why?

<strong>Scientists as storytellers.</strong> Randy Olson is a former marine biologist who wants to help science play a larger role in society. Courtesy Mark Schierbecker. <a href='https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en'>(CC BY-SA 4.0)</a>The first scientists that I found so interesting were great storytellers. They wove their research into the stories they told. In science you go out in the real world and you gather data and you come back into the lab, you work on it, and you eventually put it together into a story of what has gone on in the real world.

In filmmaking, you go out and you shoot film and you come back and you put it together into a story that you share with an audience. It's really almost the same basic process: a creative process.

Do you think that most people would agree with you that science is a creative process?

The science world is very conservative and rightfully so because it's not going to do anybody good if you publish a lot of science that's wrong. So you want to err in the direction of being slower, more cautious, and making sure that everything that's published is ideally right. But the result of that is a conservativism that makes it very difficult to pursue exciting, interesting new ideas.

We seem to be living in an era where facts no longer matter. Scientific results don’t convince people to change their minds about climate change or the value of vaccination. Can talking about science in a different way really help?

I would totally disagree with that because narrative convinces people. If you can present arguments with good narrative structure where you can slowly lead the person deeper and deeper and deeper into the issue, and then finally hit them with the facts, that's when the facts become convincing.

If you're deep into the story, it's just like a murder mystery. Eventually murder mysteries end up with forensic data and science. That becomes the lynchpin, when you get to the end and you've got the DNA evidence and the solution.

Live practice. In his Gateways 2019 keynote, Olson coaches scientists in the audience to tell their research stories more effectively, using his ‘ABT’ framework. Courtesy Randy Olson/Science Needs Story.

The problem is, if you start your murder mystery with a whole ton of DNA information and stuff like that, you definitely lose people. And you won't convince anybody by just beating them over the head with a whole bunch of data.

First you want to arouse the interest of your audience. Once they're really interested in what you're talking about, and the problem that you're working on, then you want to fulfill that interest—more often than not—with facts.

That's where the facts go once you've pulled the audience in by any means necessary, got them engaged in what the problem is. Then you finally hit them with, "Look, here's the one fact." And if you've done a good job, it makes sense and they love that fact.

So how can scientists learn to do that?

I've undergone this 40-years journey of 15-20 years as a scientist, 15-20 years as a filmmaker. That journey has led me to the tool of this ‘And, But, Therefore’ (ABT) framework that I believe is the single most important solution to the challenge of communication.

Why is teaching communication to scientists important to you?

Because I was programmed as a scientist. That's the world that I was born and raised into. So I still feel an attachment to it. And it still upsets me when I see science going wrong. For example, a few months ago when the Amazon rainforest was burning in Brazil, there were suddenly all these stories from celebrities saying inaccurate things about the amount of oxygen that comes from that area—and it wasn’t right.

When I hear fundamental pieces of knowledge propagated widely in society, it irks me as a scientist. I want to see people viewing the world with truth and accuracy.

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