12/15/2015 03:12 pm ET Updated Dec 15, 2016

And, But, Therefore: Randy Olson and the Art of Science Storytelling, Part 1

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Opening a book about science communication by talking about Comedy Central's hyper-vulgar South Park is likely to lose many readers. And among these readers may be the mature scientists who most need to rethink how they communicate. But Randy Olson's new book, Houston, We Have a Narrative: Why Science Needs Story, starts off exactly this way. Therefore, we'll talk about his interesting insights into science communication.

See what I just did there? And, but, therefore--ABT. Olson taps ABT as the winning formula for communicating science, but it's not his invention; Olson writes that a documentary about the making of South Park hit him "like a bolt of lightning" and "changed [his] life." In this documentary, South Park co-creator Trey Parker talks about how he edits South Park scripts:

I sort of always call it the rule of replacing and's with either but's or therefore... this happens, THEREFORE this happens, BUT this happens.

Olson writes that every "story can be reduced to this single structure," a seminal F=MA for narrative. Olson wrote the book Houston, We Have a Narrative to explain how to use it.

But why have a narrative in science at all? Don't scientific facts speak sufficiently for themselves? Isn't it enough for scientists to present the data? Sadly, no. As seen by Americans' abysmal understanding of basic facts about our world, scientific knowledge is not spreading far beyond the lab. "Scientists," Olson offers as an explanation, "are famous for being bad communicators."

Anyone who has attended scientific conferences knows this ugly truth: most presentations at conferences are unlistenable, unwatchable, and incomprehensible. I've sat through so many talks thinking to myself, "I have no idea what was just said, what this is all about, or why it was necessary to waste everyone's time saying it in public." Many presentations at scientific conferences are cruel endurance tests where the presenter reads the long sentences on his or her PowerPoint slides while the audience struggles to stay awake. Occasionally, a presenter will apologize and acknowledge that a projected diagram is too small for anyone to read (so why was it on the slide in the first place?). Poster sessions are often no better, with eager authors standing in front of indecipherable plots with tiny text crammed into every square centimeter of glossy poster paper. And horror upon horrors: sometimes the poster's body text is sans-serif  ["I think I just saw Helvetica on that poster! Oh, my valve!" Steve exclaims, clutching his chest and collapsing to the floor.]

Sure, the science in posters and presentations might be amazing and groundbreaking. But many scientists communicate their findings so poorly there is simply no way to know.

Communication is vitally important for building public understanding of science. Seventy percent of Americans cannot name a living scientist, and of the group who could, 1% thought the discredited television personality Dr. Oz counted as a scientist. Clearly, there is disconnect here. Therefore, if scientists want to expand the range of their discoveries beyond a tiny clique of specialists, learning to communicate in a narrative fashion--learning to tell the glorious story of scientific discovery--is essential.

One writer who has done this very well is Rebecca Skloot, whose 2010 bestseller The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks told the fascinating story of how a few cancer cells from a woman who died in 1951 became one of the most widely used cell lines in medical research, playing key roles in research on cancer, HIV, human cloning, and the Salk vaccine. These HeLa cells were so widely discussed that even an inerudite geologist such as myself knew about them, but until Skloot's book, most people (myself included) had no idea of the amazing story behind them. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks did a fantastic job telling the story of scientific discovery.

Another engaging writer is Susan Casey, whose books The Wave and The Devil's Teeth examine the science of giant waves and giant sharks, respectively. Her passionately researched books bring to life not only the wonders of the ocean, but also the drama of the humans involved in oceanic science.

Telling the story of the people involved in new discoveries can be a hook for the public to become interested in science. The recent announcement of the fossil Homo naledi included profiles of the all-female team of paleontologists and archaeologists who excavated the fossil under very difficult conditions deep underground, which required squeezing through a passage just 18 cm wide. That's dramatic data collection. (I can personally attest that becoming wedged and completely stuck in a narrow spot while caving deep underground, unable to return to the surface under my own power, is rather dramatic.)

The story of the discovery of Homo naledi makes for compelling reading. From the lucky discovery by cavers of a small antechamber in a well-trodden South African cave, to the difficult and claustrophobic excavation, to the blitzkrieg analysis by many different scientists, working with an intensity one associates with late night pizza-fueled college study sessions, the scientific narrative of Homo naledi is fascinating--and a good example of how the dramatic narrative of science should unfold.

Next time we'll explore more about the role of drama in talking about science.