June 11th, 2014
Sorry. I’ve been holding back on this. Time to let it out. Two major science-based TV shows this spring have bored cosmically. But just when I found myself wondering if things have to be this way, I spoke at an NIH postdoc conference and heard one of the best speakers I’ve ever listened to — Dr. Cliff Poodry of Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He’s a living example of the ABT way of thinking, as in: Always Be Telling stories. He’s also the sort of “trusted and liked” voice that Daniel Kahneman talked about. The two TV shows were narratively dull (so many friends emailed me saying they were both just “and, and, and” presentations) and excessively obsessed with the celebrity element. But effective mass communication really isn’t that difficult. HBO Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel has no trouble accepting that the public isn’t that interested in sports. Why can’t science people realize the public isn’t that interested in science? Cliff’s talk was a tour de force of narrative instinct at work. He is a true role model and it was a treat to get to speak the next day, following him. And guess what the core of his talk was about — humans (science was secondary).
DR. CLIFF POODRY, THE VOICE SCIENCE NEEDS. He gave a tremendous talk on Sunday evening at the NIH IRACDA conference in Albuquerque. If you want to see everything I have advocated in my books brought to life in one person, this is the guy.
“YEARS” BORED, “COSMOS” SNORED
Okay, the wannabe hipster science folks have now taken their shots and failed. It’s time for a little honest assessment.
I’ve held off saying anything publicly about the two major TV series this spring “Cosmos” and “Years of Living Dangerously,” but I can’t contain it any longer. If you search “COSMOS BORING” you will find heaps of websites conveying their disappointment with Neil deGrasse Tyson and the “Cosmos” series (they should include in their critiques co-creator Seth MacFarlane, whose current movie has 33% on Rotten Tomatoes).
Equally disappointing is the Showtime series, “The Years of Living Dangerously,” which premiered to a cosmically low rating of 0.07 market share meaning that more people were (literally) watching reruns of “Family Feud” than the show that featured George Clooney and Harrison Ford playing journalists (Showbuzz Daily called it a “microscopically low rating”). All I know is that a month ago in Portland at the JASM meeting I asked a group of grad students if they knew the title (not one did), then asked them if they could guess what the show was about — they ALL assumed it was about X-treme sports like motocross. That’s a pretty sad messaging effort when that’s what the youth guess.
CLIFF POODRY, ONE OF MY NEW HEROES
So just when I start to think the communication of science is doomed with boring voices I get a huge surprise. I was in Albuquerque to speak Monday morning to 200 NIH postdocs at the IRACDA conference (which is clearly a beacon of hope for the training of good scientists as it’s an amazing program). It began Sunday evening in the big ballroom at the hotel with the usual science bureaucrats saying stuff that had me groaning inside thinking “can’t they do better than this?”, but then they brought on the featured plenary speaker, Dr. Cliff Poodry, and everything changed.
He was so good I began taking notes on my iPhone (it was all I had for notetaking — I’m sure everyone thought I was texting — they couldn’t have been more incorrect). Here’s what Cliff talked about: Humans. He told stories. They all had structure. They all had a quick set up, an interesting twist, then worked to a clear and thematic point. There was no “what’s he getting to” or “he’s droning on and on” or “I’m lost” that you get with so many science talks.
The next day in my plenary I referred to him so much that he later called me his publicist. But I just call ’em as I see ’em. And he was genuinely inspiring.
You’d have to talk to me directly to hear the specifics, but one example: he had a quote about how when an archer misses the bullseye he doesn’t blame the target. It made me think of the climate crowd who has done such a lousy job with their communications efforts (starting by putting all their stock in a boring climate movie) then blamed the right wing (who ought to be their target) for their failures.
He presented so many perfect quotes and anecdotes. He had a great quote from Max Delbruck about how artists see their work as a solitary expression to stand alone for the rest of time, but scientists give up their work to be absorbed, modified, amplified, and fused with other ideas (it’s such a powerful quote that makes you see why artists are pure ego while scientists are more selfless). So much great material. I wish it had been recorded. But then I’m also glad it wasn’t — you can’t really capture that sort of chemistry with a single video camera (trust me on this, I’m a filmmaker).
SCIENCE NEEDS A HUMBLE VOICE
I’m sorry but there’s something offputting about the desperate efforts to make science cool in recent years. It really isn’t working. What is truly cool about science is the humble side to it. The best and my most favorite scientists over the years knew about cool, had an intrigue with it, but in the end, were so focused on science itself that they simply lacked the element of “self awareness” that undermines cool. Which made them genuinely cool.
It was always the deal with everyone from James Dean to Jimi Hendrix. They didn’t sit and think about cool. They just were. There was something humble about them. And more importantly, there was something non-self aware — which is that thing you find in truly brilliant actors — that ability to live in a world where they’re not pretending that they don’t care what other people think — they truly don’t care. Which makes them interesting to watch.
Cosmos and Years both tried too hard. All you have to do is look at the Variety and Hollywood Reporter reviews for them — they could sense it. The reviewers weren’t very critical, they were just diplomatic in their assessments.
Sadly, there’s nothing special in either series. But there is in science. As Cliff Poodry knows.