May 6th, 2010
This is an essay that will irritate the literal minded thinkers, but it’s the cold truth about science communication. It’s also about a great article from Mark Slouka in Harpers where a humanities professor beats up on both science and his humanities colleagues.
THE MISTAKE OF JOY
A decade ago I was part of a discussion among professors at U.S.C. from a variety of science disciplines talking about the mass communication of science. One of the professors said, “I remember one of my higher level math textbooks in college — in the Preface the author opened by saying, ‘Who among us hasn’t at one time or another marveled at the sheer beauty of the prime numbers?'”
Well. Can I be the first to raise my hand? I can’t say I recall ever having that moment of joy.
Therein lies the fundamental dilemma with so many scientists in getting them to accept the difficulty of arousing the general public’s interest in science. The average person doesn’t share your passion, your sense of wonder, your curiosity, or your fascination for things scientific. To most of them science is cold and alien. That’s not to say they can’t be drawn in. It just has to be done the right way. Starting off by saying, “Prime numbers!” might bring smiles and looks of excited expectation from math majors, but for most of the rest of humanity it’s a cue to duck and cover because here comes equations.
When you develop a passion for some aspect of science you tend to assume the rest of the world shares it. Or at least is open to the possibility, if only they were exposed properly to the topic. For my Ph.D. dissertation in marine biology, I studied slimy brown creatures that grow on the Great Barrier Reef of Australia which I affectionately nicknamed “turdballs” and always assumed that if only someone were to make a movie about them the rest of the world would understand why I found them so fascinating. Nobody did, and to this day there’s probably only about a handful of us on the planet who would even notice if they went extinct. I don’t think we’ll be seeing an IMAX film titled “Turdball Journey” any time soon.
Getting the public to share your enthusiasm is a challenge.
MY AQUARIUS FILM THAT NEVER HAPPENED
To bring this dilemma to life, let me tell you about a film I wanted to make in 1994 but never did. This is an important lesson for everyone who wants to make a science film, and it’s something I used as the opening to the workshop on videomaking I ran at this year’s Ocean Sciences Meeting in Portland.
When I moved to Hollywood in 1994, I had a friend who was a prominent director. His wife had an undergrad degree in marine biology and wanted to produce documentaries about the oceans. She used her connections to set us up with a bunch of meetings around town with production companies to pitch my idea for an hour long documentary about the Aquarius Undersea Habitat in Key Largo, Florida.
I did a mission in an earlier undersea habitat, Hydrolab, which was one of the most fun and memorable experiences of my life. Because of it, my passion for the idea of humans living under the sea (we spent 8 days living at 60 foot depth) was unbridled. So my friend and I would come into the room with the producers and they would say with big smiles, “Okay, tell us the story of the film you want to make!”
I would take a deep breath, then launch in with, “It’s the story of the undersea habitat and four scientists who go down and spend a week living on the sea floor and doing research and …”
They would interrupt and say, “Okay, but what’s the story you want to tell?”
I would say, “Right. Okay. The story is about the four scientists who go down for a week and …”
And they would interrupt again with, “Yes, we’ve got that part, but what is the STORY you want to tell?”
And it would melt down into an argument with me finally shouting, “The story IS the four scientists — THEY are the story.”
Of course the film never got made.
It’s fifteen years later, and I finally see what they were saying. There was no genuine story to what I was telling. There was a lot of exposition — the habitat is here, the scientists live inside, the fish swim around, the scientists go outside, etc.
But nothing ever really “happened” in what I was telling.
Telling a good story is much more complex. You need to begin with exposition — setting things up — but then something needs to “happen.” After we get to know the habitat and the scientists, then they need to get a call from the President of the United States telling them that his wife is dying of cancer and the only known cure is found in a type of seaweed that occurs around the habitat — they have twenty four hours to harvest enough seaweed to save the life of the President’s wife.
Um, yeah. Well, not quite that storyline, but something that upsets the normal pace of things, creates some source of tension or conflict, and starts us on a journey that has a clear destination. Doing some experiments on coral isn’t quite good enough. You can make that movie, but it will mostly be of interest to people who are already interested in experiments on corals, which is not a whole lot of folks.
The bottom line is that the science by itself will attract only the audience for that specific type of science, which no matter how much you think people are interested in science, generally isn’t much. The way you reach the bigger audience is to reach out to the humanities (as I said repeatedly in Chapter 2 of the book) and use human elements of the sort that everyone can connect with. And this is one of many reasons why the sciences need the humanities. Another reason is in a great essay in Harpers last fall.
SLOUKA’S HARPERS ARTICLE: SCIENCE CAN GO SUCK IT
In the September issue of Harpers Magazine there is an excellent and under-appreciated article (at least in the science world) titled, “Dehumanized: When Math and Science Rule the School,” by Mark Slouka, a professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Chicago. I wrote to him last week asking for an interview and he kind of told me to get lost. His article is a diatribe against the way, “Science has been gobbling up market share for decades at the expense of the humanities” (as he put it in his email to me), so I guess he felt I’m part of the enemy looking to have some fun with his desperate pleas. In response to my saying, “I’m working on improving science communication,” he said he’s just too busy for an interview plus, “Helping the sciences do even better is, frankly, not high on my list of priorities.” Which I thought was a pretty cool answer.
You should read his article. He’s like the last brave pirate on a sinking ship holding up his cutlass and shouting at his colleagues, “Come on, you weenies, we shouldn’t just roll over and die.” Which is what he feels his beleaguered humanities colleagues have done as he poses the question, “What ever happened to teaching humanities for humanities sake?” He says that most humanities professors have given up on that and now try to make their last gasp justification for their existence based on the idea that, “Even scientists need to learn humanities.”
In a pique of rage directed at his colleagues, he says the following:
If the self-portrait is unflattering, I can’t apologize. Look at us! Look at how we’ve let the fashion for economic utility intimidate us, how we simultaneously cringe and justify ourselves, how we secretly despise the philistines, who could never understand the relevance of our theoretical flea circus, even as we rush, in a paroxysm of class guilt, to offer classes in Introductory Sit-Com Writing, in Clown 500, in Seinfeld: classes in which “everyone is a winner.” Small wonder the sciences don’t respect us; we shouldn’t respect us.
And what have we gained from all this? Alas, despite our desperate eagerness to fit in, to play ball, we still don’t belong, we’re still ignored or infantilized. What we’ve earned is the prerogative of going out with a whimper. Marginalized, self-righteous, we just keep on keeping on, insulted that no one returns our calls, secretly expecting no less.
Wonderful. Btw, I took Introductory Sit-Com Writing in film school — literally. The instructor was a burned out old writer from the original Dick Van Dyke Show. I told him he wasn’t funny and he gave me a “C” which meant I got no credit (grouch).
More importantly, I feel a kindred spirit with Slouka — he’s exhorting his humanities colleagues to do better, I’m exhorting my science colleagues to do better. The only difference is he’s smarter and braver than me.
I love a writer who doesn’t mince words. He throws a lot more flak at his humanities colleagues in his article, but there is a much deeper and more important point to his whole essay, which is that there is a danger of teaching too much science without humanities. He lauds the humanities primarily because it is messy where science appears neat. He praises the humanities because “they grow uncertainty” — which is pretty much the opposite of science. His words help you see the antagonism between the sciences versus humanities.
Just a month ago at the University of Arizona I put his observation about the downhill slide of humanities to the test when I went to dinner with some faculty from their film school and literature department. They were complaining about how their budgets were being cut, programs chopped down, and even losing building space. I asked about the sciences on their campus. The response was straight out of his article — “Oh, they’re all booming.”
HUMILITY IN THE FACE OF COMPLEXITY
The very best quote of Slouka’s article is this — as he extolls the “messy” virtues of the humanities, he eventually hits on their ultimate attribute. In reference to how the humanities contribute to the making of a well-rounded mind, he says, “… out of all this work of self-building might emerge an individual capable of humility in the face of complexity.”
That phrase is incredibly important — HUMILITY IN THE FACE OF COMPLEXITY. Isn’t this what the Al Gore movie lacked? They got up and presented an astoundingly complex problem — global warming — without the humility to couch it all in warnings of, “Nobody can predict the future, this is only our best guess.” There was a marked lack of humility in the tone of the film which had a basic message of, “Science has got this all figured out, let’s get to work.”
I’m sorry, but I think that lack of humility helped fan the flames of whoever it was who stole the Climategate emails. You can certainly sense it in all the climate skeptics I interviewed in my movie, “Sizzle.” And you’re welcome to spew all the hatred you want at climate skeptics, but the simple fact is the ones speaking out are just the tip of the iceberg as the streets of America are filled with them as well. The Gallup polls show it. Everyone from my accountant to my landlord to the guy fixing my car a couple of weeks ago — I tell them I did a movie about global warming and they scoff about the entire subject.
I don’t think it had to be that way. I’m sure Gore has plenty of humanities training in his background, far more than me. But somehow the very trait of humility that Slouka is talking about has been lost by the climate science voices who rail against the skeptics. They’ll tell you it is a necessary part of their strategy (to be self-certain and project superiority), but I wonder if it isn’t a reflection of today’s overall education policies that are so consumed with the pursuit of certainty.
Everyone involved with climate science should read Slouka’s article.