Scientist-Turned-Filmmaker Implores Colleagues to Join Him in “the War on Boredom”

Released: 1/1/2014 9:00 AM EST
Embargo expired: 1/3/2014 12:00 AM EST
Source Newsroom: Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology (SICB)
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Citations 2014 Annual Meeting of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology

Byline: Mike Simon, Arcadia Healthcare Solutions

Newswise — "In the war against boredom," says Dr. Randy Olson, "the casualties can be found sitting in their seats ... asleep. It's time to put an end to the suffering."

And this is a war that Olson knows only too well. The marine biologist and former professor has for years warned his colleagues of the dire consequences of losing their audience, whether in a classroom or in the public sphere.

So one can understand Olson’s enthusiasm as he took the stage to present a turning point, if not an end, to the ‘war on boredom’ at the 2014 Annual Meeting of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology in Austin, TX.

Olson’s solution to science boredom? ‘Narrative Training,’ an age-old discipline known to storytellers as the ability to structure stories – in this case about science and scientists – with a full narrative arc, a beginning, middle, and end, and a human connection that listeners can relate to.

“I’ve seen the light,” Olson says, on the need to teach scientists how to tell stories. “This is the best hope for solving the difficult problems that scientists have.”

And Olson is certainly doing his best to spread the word. His latest workshop, entitled “Storymaking With the WSP Model” – WSP stands for “Word-Sentence-Paragraph” – brought together a group of scientists, armed only with their own experiences in science and as scientists, to teach them how to transform those experiences into scientific narrative.

The workshop makes use of the Connection Storymaker, a smartphone app based on storytelling lessons from Connection: Hollywood Storytelling Meets Critical Thinking, which Olson co-wrote.

In case anyone is wondering, Olson has certainly seen exemplars, scientists who really understand how to frame that story. “Back when I was a scientist,” Olson recalled, “there were departmental seminars, someone who really had it. It was no different from a murder mystery.”

Although he understands that not every scientist will be an Agatha Christie, Olson believes that every scientist must develop these skills, preferably beginning early in scientific training.

And the former tenured university professor believes that the view that the public can’t handle science is just wrong. Rather, he counters, consider how many people have discovered genuine scientific instincts following along with the forensic scientists on CSI, or who got their first understanding of genetics from the animated snippet of DNA in Jurassic Park.

And yet, there remains the stereotype of the lofty, thoughtful professor. Olson grants that “the sophistication of complex words is dazzling. But when the outcome depends on understanding, it’s a train wreck.”

Olson sees Connection and the accompanying app as the “solution” to the “problem” framed in his 2009 book, Don’t Be Such a Scientist, which used Olson’s experience in Hollywood as a catalyst to approach the challenge of science communication from a new direction. His films Flock of Dodos and Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy, took a similar tack, addressing the challenge that scientists face in communicating about Evolution and Climate Change, respectively, and how many of those challenges are of their own making.

“It’s so bad, and there’s no excuse for it,” says Olson. The books and films on science communication, the Storymaking App, and the workshop tour would all appear to be his call to arms, to create new expectations that scientists, as the title of his book suggests, not be such scientists. And Olson is not alone; his is only one of many efforts nationwide to help scientists advance public understanding of science in ways that are useful and approachable to non-experts.

The scientists selected for Olson’s workshop in Austin this weekend came ready for the challenge. Armed with stories about the intimate lives of birds, lessons learned from the auto shop, and terrible pickup lines, these scientists came both for the opportunity to work with Randy Olson, and for the chance to learn how to tell stories that keep their audiences on the edge of their seats.

And that larger narrative – the story of a generation of scientists who can explain science as if they and their audience were sitting around some ancient campfire – is one that Olson clearly can’t wait to hear.

"I have a dream," Olson says, "of a day where every oral presentation, every written paper, and every answer to the question of, ‘So what are you working on?’ has a clear beginning, middle and end, following a narrative arc, advancing the narrative, reaching for specifics, and is humanized, concise and compelling. That's all I'm asking of scientists. Is that too much?"


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