The Author Who Thinks 'South Park' Can Help Save Science

Climate change needs a better narrative.

My brother’s brief tenure as a math doctoral student at the University of Chicago ended shortly after he attended a gathering where one of his colleagues bragged that he had never read a novel. To my brother’s dismay, everyone else in the room nodded in agreement and approval. My brother had already been questioning his decision to devote his life to math. That exchange proved to be fatal. Within weeks, he had dropped out of the program and abandoned the field.

I thought about my brother this week while reading Houston, We Have a Narrative: Why Science Needs Story, a new book by Randy Olson that makes the argument that the problem with science today is that scientists don’t understand narrative. Olson is very familiar with stories like my brother’s. People in the sciences, he says, “have developed this whole stigma and phobia about the word story. And it’s a huge problem.”

In Olson’s view, this storyphobia, as he puts it, is more than just an off-putting quirk. It’s part of the reason why, despite overwhelming scientific consensus, the public is still debating issues like global warming, evolution and vaccination policy.

“Telling a simple story can be frustrating, but it may be the single most important challenge for all scientists,” Olson writes. “The tendency of scientists to present endless piles of facts, unable to find the singular narrative on which everyone can focus, has been a reason many important science stories, including that of global warming, fail to resonate with the public.”

Any nonscientist who has slogged through a scientific paper can understand what Olson is talking about. Even some scientists themselves know this is a problem. Earlier this month, nature published a linguistics analysis of the climate summary papers of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The verdict? The IPCC’s reports are “increasingly unreadable.”

Olson was once a scientist himself, with a doctorate in biology from Harvard University. In the late '90s, he quit his job as a tenured professor of marine biology at the University of New Hampshire to go to film school in California. Since then, he has made two movies: “Flock of Dodos,” about evolution, and “Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy.” He also has written a sort of precursor to Houston, We Have A Narrative: Don't Be Such a Scientist also delves into the challenges scientists face when communicating their findings to the general public.

Telling a simple story can be frustrating, but it may be the single most important challenge for all scientists.

 In the new book, Olson proposes a solution that he hopes will change how science is written and talked about today. The idea came from an unexpected source: Trey Parker, co-creator of “South Park.” In a documentary about the show, Parker described his technique for editing the first draft of each show’s script: he replaces “ands” with “buts” and “therefores.” Olson feels that every story can be reduced to this formula, which he refers to as ABT. As in, he writes, “the story of a little girl living on a farm in Kansas AND her life is boring, BUT one day a tornado sweeps her away to the land of Oz, THEREFORE she must undertake a journey to find her way home. That is the ABT at work.”

Olson argues that scientists should use this formula too, to shape their work from a list of facts strung together by “ands” into a meaningful story. The debate over climate change, in particular, has suffered from this lack of narrative. Despite the 2014 poll showing that 87 percent of climate scientists agree with the idea that humans have altered our climate, only half of the American public believes this. 

The author recalled a conference he attended several years ago in Washington, D.C., where one of the panelists brought up the fact that there were more than 20 conservation groups inside the Beltway all communicating about global warming in different ways. “The problem is the climate movement has not had singularity of narrative and that’s what is essential for a successful mass movement,” he said.

Olson thinks that science hasn’t always suffered from a lack of narrative structure. He points to people like James Watson, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA and the author of The Double Helix, and Stephen Jay Gould, one of the most influential evolutionary theorists of the last century.

“This profession has lost track of its narrative roots,” Olson said. Over the past six years, Olson has conducted a range of workshops trying to teach scientists how to communicate to the public and use the ABT structure to explain their research.

Not surprisingly perhaps, the scientific community has had mixed reactions to Olson’s work.

In a Science review, author Rafael Luna cautions readers against allowing narrative to overpower the data. "Remember," he wrote, "that a narrative is only as good as the data on which it is based." Other scientists have accused Olson of telling them something that they already know. “I simply don’t recognise the reasons that Olson gives for writing this book,” wrote Cait MacPhee, a professor of biological physics at the University of Edinburgh. 

But some are receptive to Olson’s work, and encouraging others to follow suit. At a talk at the University of Victoria last spring, Gavin Schmidt, a climatologist and the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, talked about the lack of narrative in the discussion over climate, and the role that ABT might play going forward.

“Nothing makes sense unless you start something at the beginning,” he said. “So let’s start at the beginning.”

Lila Shapiro covers the science fiction of science, the imaginative ways scientists are trying to solve the world’s hardest problems. Tips?