‘Houston, We Have A Narrative: Why Science Needs Story’ — Just Not This Story

Houston, do we have a problem?

Randy Olson wants you. Well, mainly, Randy Olson, author of Houston, We Have a Narrative: Why Science Needs Story, wants you to help tell a story. And by you, I mean science educators and communicators. He wants to gift you with abilities to better relate your research to a larger audience, in order to influence the wider public. You sniffling nerds, you brainy eggheads, there’s something wrong with you and Olson is here to help.

Commendable goal. Even if you didn’t watch the recent FOX reboot of Cosmos featuring astrophysicist and all around expert communicator Neil DeGrasse Tyson, most of us on our social media feeds have run into the troubles of people sharing and trying to explain some sort of scientific find. This can be of the planet shaking, climate change kind, or of the more intimate, teenage-brains-are-just-so-odd kind. Look no further than the ongoing controversy over vaccinations, the linking and counter-linking Cold War on comment threads.

Regardless, the discoveries of science are manifold and hard to disseminate. For every claim to truth, there are seemingly innumerable counterclaims to dispute it. We once thought fat free chips, brewed in olestra, would lead us to a snack food Valhalla. Many rolls of toilet paper later, this truth has been expelled — violently in some cases.

So to reconcile this disconnect, Olson has penned a tome, creating an umbilical between science and storytelling, something we can latch on to. And the two are quite similar. After all, “Narratives are stories that connect a series of events over time, creating large-scale patterns.” Aren’t the findings of scientists, repeated, an arrangement of data, the hallmarks of narrative, the accumulation of data for a set conclusion, a directive? Or, as Olson phrases it: “Science is permeated with story. Both the scientific method and the communication of science are narrative processes.”

Olson explains in this text his move from academia to Hollywood. A promising biology professor on the East Coast, comes to the USC Film School on this nation’s West. Along the way he encounters obstacles and comes to understand how easily scientists, as he’s quick to conclude, fall into a storytelling gap. They lack this ability to make the complex simple. He knows, after all, how scientists think, because he once was one.

Though Olson’s goals are commendable and demand our attention, it’s his approach that appears wanting. Turning the complex into the simple and digestible is important. Navigating that translation is far from easy. But Olson, convinced that even the most well-trained scientists can’t accomplish this, seems to turn to a different source: Hollywood. Again, he understands implicitly that academia is “What everyone pretty much knows… a refuge for culturally detached blowhards, some of whom are good for teaching and research but often limited in their ability to function outside the ivory tower.”

Instead of enlisting academics or writers, something “detached from the real world and not the sort of incubator that is likely to help science with this very practical problem,” he opts for Hollywood, a place, in his own words, that is, “a brutal, rotten, vicious, heartless place.” A place of Michel Bay, Roland Emmerich, Adam Sandler, James Wan, and Zack Snyder. A place where they “know that to survive as a moviemaker you have to tell good stories, to tell good stories you have to understand narrative at a deep and intuitive level, and to do that you have to have studied, analyzed and refined narrative dynamics to a science. Which they have.”

Oh, really. Hollywood knows good narrative? You mean that the Star Wars prequels, Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull, Jack and Jill, Man of Steel, Star Trek: Into Darkness, Super 8, Stonewall, Furious 7, Pain and Gain and the Transformers franchise are good stories? These are the keystones of modern Hollywood after all, incomprehensible as they are. They and their money knows what needs to be done? And aren’t the dealers driving Hollywood just as “culturally detached” as their academic analogues?

Granted, he defaults a lot to Trey Parker’s narrative exercise from the South Park documentary 6 Days to Air, but it’s a template, almost Mad Libs like, of how narrative works best with phrases like “and, but, and therefore,” but it’s overused, and it seems like something Hollywood rarely follows. Plus, South Park seems outside the mainstream of Hollywood. Anyway, as Olson explains, in Hollywood, “You make a flop, you go to ‘movie jail,’ where they won’t let you make any more movies for somewhere between a while and forever.” Tell that to M. Night Shyamalan.

What makes Olson’s approach so troubling or to use some of the academese he so fears, problematic, aside from his flaccid and facile writing, a narrative voice akin to an avuncular relative dropping “on fleek” in regular conversation, is he’s dismissive of the very experts he claims to be trying to help. Olson relates complexity with impenetrability. Yes, scientists need to absorb his advice and become better advocates for their findings. However, looking to Hollywood, and only Hollywood, is a massive misstep.

I’m a member of academe, contingent and adjuncty as I am, eating beans from a can on my professor’s salary. Yet, I interact with a hundred-plus students each week. Though I’m not a scientist, I teach the humanities, the very discipline Olson disparages. But I can contribute and the tools don’t need to rest with people already insulated from the dangers of climate change implicit in this book. When Olson excludes, he loses the people closest to the affected (the young) and those, potentially, able to make the most impact. When the author falls back on easy clichés of the detached professor and the dweeby scientist, he reveals himself to be the culturally detached (and ineffective) one.

Houston, We Have a Narrative is about how best to combat climate change and how can scientists best convey this information to an electorate partially skeptical here in the States. Despite Olson’s claims it isn’t through a sole reliance on the tools of Hollywood, whatever those talents might be. It’s about being inclusive, of accepting others, and not talking down to those in those in their towers, ivory or otherwise.

RATING 3 / 10