October 28th, 2010
Advocating that scientists develop a better understanding of the way in which stories work IS NOT advocating dishonesty any more than recommending someone visit a handimart store is a recommendation that they rob it.
THE TYRANNY OF BOREDOM: Andy Revkin had some fun yesterday on his NY Times blog Dot Earth with my on-going whining about how inherently boring the climate crisis is (photo: A. Revkin), but these two things are related — “the narrative” and boredom.
PUSHBACK FROM THE SCIENCE WORLD
These days I’m pretty much used to the “pushback” that I get from the science world. It started in a big way with one of my first screenings of “Flock of Dodos” in 2006. Evolution blogger P.Z. Myers accused me of advocating “dumbing down” science through bringing in “the Hollywood element.” He eventually watched the movie and pretty much understood what I was up to. But the pushback continues in all different forms — from an epidemiologist last week in a Q&A angrily disagreeing with me about my focus on the need to “arouse,” to a group of scientists at a major research institute that I visited earlier this year who lobbied to have me “uninvited” because they basically read the title of my book (and never got further than the title) as, “Don’t Be A Scientist.” The word “SUCH” was lost on their hyper-literal minds.
The pushback continues this week. I recorded a segment for NPR’s “Living on Earth,” which they began airing on Sunday, prompting several emails taking issue with some of what I had to say. Of them, this one was the most blunt and fired up. I replied to the fellow who wrote it and he gave me permission to reprint it here, without his name. He had sent me what he sent to “Living on Earth”:
Hello Living on Earth –
I listened to your interview with Randy Olson and his book, “Don’t Be Such a Scientist”. And I was so disgusted I had to comment. He’s trying to convince scientists to lie. Pure and simple. To be disingenuous. To behave like politicians. To bulls–t. To make stronger statements about an issue than are justifiable from their data. For example, in the case of the so-called “climate gate” story, he told your reporter that they should have distracted attention from the content of the mails by trying to shift attention to the illegality of the leaking of the mails. While the computer break-in and the release of private mails are certainly issues, as scientists they should confront and explain the content of those mails and whether it amounted to typical informal private discussions among scientists or whether it amounted to an attempt to defraud and mislead the public, which should be anathema to science.
Then your reporter asked Olson what should be the “Hollywood concept pitch” for the climate change debate. And he replied, obviously jokingly, “That we’re all gonna die.” But joking or not, here he is suggesting that scientists need to exaggerate their claims grotesquely, down to gripping, consistent story-telling, or one liners or even single words. But, that’s just totally freaking wrong. It’s unethical. Particularly for a complex phenomenon like climate change. And it’s totally, totally unethical. And I can’t believe that your reproter just went along with it without pushing back on Olson.
First of all, of all the possible outcomes of global warming, even if it is severe, all of us dying is so far out on the fringe that it is tantamount to lying. But beyond that, I dunno where to begin with this…complex phenomena are typically hard to predict. There is a spectrum of possible outcomes. Scientists should absolutely not attempt to dismiss the complexity and uncertainty of such phenomena, but should educate the public about that complexity. The argument that should be made for responding to climate change is not that the effects are certain, but that there is a very significant chance that the effects may be catastrophic and costly, both in economic terms and in terms of human suffering. And that it is reckless to bet on the increasingly unlikely chance that there will be no serious consequences. But scientists should not lie! Let me say that again: Scientists should not lie. They should not even weasel. The value of science is that it it is meant to deal in the best account of the truth that we have, complete with uncertainties. That’s what’s different about science then all the bs-ing that humans do in all other domains. And it’s the GOOD THING, not the bad thing, about science.
Now, scientists are all just a bunch of humans, so they can be as deceitful, disingenuous, and self-serving as any other collection of people. But the DISCIPLINE of science, the method of science, is to converge on the truth about phsyical reality and to acknowledge the limitations of that truth, the uncertainties, not just the cetainties. Olson would have scientists engage in the same kind of lies and half-truths as the disingenuous “skeptics” in order to compete with them in the public arena. But if they do that then it comes down to who is the better liar (“storyteller”). And your reporter questioned nothing about this when he should have totally repudiated it as immoral nonsense. He only bemoaned the stupidity of Americans that required that they be lied to in order to be convinced, as Olson recommends. But the very reason that the public behaves childishly is that they have been encouraged by the media, by the corporations, and by their government to be simpleminded and embrace simplistic, jingoistic explanations. It is the role of scientists (and journalists!!) to disabuse the public of their simplistic and incorrect world views, and NOT to sell them the slickest lies.
Olson must have been an awful scientist given what he is proposing that scientists become.
And LOE should have more guts and not give this guy a pass.
The first thing I would say to these accusations of promoting lying is (to draw on the basic principles of my book) “Don’t TELL me, SHOW me.” Referring to me, he says, “He’s trying to convince scientists to lie.” I don’t recall seeing a chapter in my book titled, “Better Science Through Lying.”
But his charges, while untrue, are NOT totally illogical.
My standard reply to the claims of advocating dishonesty is to point to page 111 of my book in which I say, “I will never, ever endorse the idea of striving for anything less than 100 percent accuracy in the making of any film related to real issues in the world of science.”
I couldn’t have spelled it out much more clearly. And yet, when the book was reviewed in The New Scientist last September, the reviewer recommended, “to act on Olson’s advice and start bending the facts when they get in the way.” I wrote a Letter to the Editor, which they published a week later, pointing to this quote on page 111.
The explanation for this is we’re dealing with the basic communication elements of SUBSTANCE and STYLE — the two elements in the subtitle of the book. The interesting thing is that the substance of the book (that sentence on page 111 in particular) advocates complete accuracy. Yet people such as: 1) the reviewer, 2) the guy who wrote the email above, 3) one of my best, old friends from graduate school, and 4) plenty of other good folks, skip over that bit of substance and instead pick up the “message” from the elements of style. They interpret my use of irreverent humor as conveying, “I don’t really mean what I’m saying.”
Their perception is wrong, but it’s a valid objection. The confusion between substance and style is also symptomatic of today’s society as we can see in television news.
NOT NECESSARILY THE NEWS
In the 1960’s there was a sardonic/sarcastic/parody news show called, “That Was the Week That Was,” which had fun with the news in an irreverent way. In those days, the show was seen as pure entertainment, not “a trusted voice.” The trusted voice role was left to Walter Cronkite, Huntley and Brinkley, and all the other father figures of the evening news.
LONG before “The Daily Show,” there was “That Was the Week That Was” in the early 1960’s. When you listen to the blackface chorus in this clip singing, “Mississippi is the state you gotta choose, where we hate all the darkies and the Catholics and the Jews,” you see that Comedy Central is “timid” (to use Jon Stewart’s word for Obama) by comparison.
But times have changed, as evidenced last year by the NY Times asking whether Jon Stewart is, “the most trusted man in television.” The Walter Cronkites are all gone. In their absence, the older generation looks for a replacement voice, and somewhat bizarrely (with Jon Stewart being the first to acknowledge this), Jon Stewart seems to be the closest thing around.
This is all the same sort of substance/style dynamics I’m talking about with my unheard “100% accuracy” statement in my book. Our society has CHANGED. I drew on Richard Lanham’s 2006 book, “The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in an Age of Information,” when I talked about this in my book. We have moved beyond substance into a fixation on style.
TODAY “STORYTELLING” AND “NARRATIVE” ARE EVERYWHERE
So the angry email above illustrates the fear in the science community of this word, “storytelling.” Let’s examine this.
The word we really need to start with is, “narrative.” I read an article in the New Yorker a few weeks ago where the writer was yawning about this word. It is now EVERYWHERE. Particularly in politics. Listen to MSNBC’s “Hardball with Chris Matthews” and you’ll inevitably hear one of the political pundits use the word. Someone will say something like, “The Democrats are falling into the narrative of …”
In fact, just last night, as Jon Stewart interviewed President Obama, he asked, “… are you surprised that other people, even your base, can be disappointed, or do you reject that NARRATIVE?”
People didn’t use that word just a decade ago. People also weren’t using the word, “framing.” Linguistics professor and political advisor to the Democrats George Lakoff (Univ. of California, Berkeley) is credited by many for doing a lot to interject the term into political dialogue, particularly with his 2003 book, “Don’t Think of an Elephant.” In 2007 Chris Mooney and Matt Nisbet did their best to introduce the term to the science world with their editorial in Science, “Framing Science,” which met with fierce resistance. But like it or not, it’s part of today’s world.
Now let me tell you about an element of this “narrative” dynamic in the science world I listened to just last week.
NULLSVILLE: “MIXED MESSAGES” WORKSHOP ON EPIDEMIOLOGY AT UNIV. OF CONNECTICUT
Last week I was given the great fortune of being invited by Dr. Lawrence Silbart of the Center for Environmental Health and Health Promotion at the University of Connecticut, to give the lunchtime keynote address at a one day conference he organized titled, “Mixed Messages in Public Health: It’s no wonder folks are confused.”
First off, it was an excellent workshop — small, informal, very comfortable, and the speakers had clearly been chosen as pieces of a puzzle that fit together. For the morning session there were three speakers, all speaking on the subject of Bisphenol-A toxicity. One of them was Dr. Geoffrey Kabat, Senior Epidemiologist at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. The title of his talk was, “How Our Society Manufactures Hazards.”
One of the main points he made is the innate bias we, as humans, have towards the idea of wanting to, “tell a better story.” This manifests itself in the science world in the form of preferring positive results over null results. It’s a huge problem. If you think chocolate chips cause cancer you can probably get a grant to investigate this (you’re looking for a clear pattern — a “positive” result). But if you think they don’t, nobody is going to fund you to investigate it (you’d be looking for a null result). The task of proving which carcinogens cause which cancers is presumably finite. The job of demonstrating what things in the universe do not cause cancer is infinite.
More importantly, if you give a talk at a scientific meeting about a positive result, on average, people will find it more interesting and compelling than a null result. The object of science is to look for patterns in nature — not non-patterns.
I know this dilemma well. I spent four years of my life as a postdoctoral fellow investigating a very cool positive result (that crown-of-thorns starfish population dynamics are controlled by the source of their larval food) which I didn’t believe. I eventually conducted a set of experiments which I published in a respected scientific journal (Limnology and Oceanography) offering up data indicating the larval food idea was, in my assessment, incorrect. My work was sufficiently respected, but nobody ever really got that excited about my findings — it was kind of like, “Yay, you showed that a really cool story wasn’t true — thanks for ruining our fun.”
It’s not just that stupid people love a good story. It’s what Dr. Kabat described in detail in his talk — EVEN SCIENTISTS lean towards positive results — i.e. a better story. We can’t help it. Our brains are wired this way. I’m more interested in hearing about your trip to the store where something happened than the trip where nothing happened.
DEPRESSING NEWS: THE DRUG AND DISEASE WORLD IS A MESS
I’m not sure you really want to read this next article. I read it on the plane and I’m still deeply disturbed by it. It’s in this month’s Atlantic magazine. The title is, “Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science,” by David H. Freeman. The message of the article is that drug testing and disease research these days is an unmitigated mess. The author focuses on an amazing man, Dr. John Ioannidis who lives his life conducting “meta-research” — looking for patterns in the giant body of literature that emerges from the drug and disease world. In the article they talk about many of the patterns he sees — none of which are good. One of the trends is the same tendency to fall victim to story structure, chasing results that “make for a good story,” as opposed to those that don’t.
It’s everywhere. Our society has become like a house full of termites. We are the victims of our own defectively programmed brains (which is a message that makes for a good story, by the way).
DO SCIENTISTS LIKE TO TELL A GOOD STORY? (afraid so)
Scientists are only human. It’s an age old headline that still shocks people. So what are we going to do about this? Get mad at the world? Argue that scientists are fundamentally dishonest?
No, the thing to do is read as many of Stephen Jay Gould’s tremendous essays from Natural History as possible. The fact that scientists are only human was his central theme. And I wish I could put my finger on them, but I know that more than one of his essays began by talking about this inclination towards positive results.
Gould wasn’t trying to promote the thesis that scientists are fundamentally dishonest by any stretch. And at a personal level, this is what so disgusted me about the intelligent design movement when I first started looking at it in 2005. “Scientists” like Jonathan Wells were using Gould’s exposes on things like the Piltdown Hoax to try and make the case that there is a pattern of routine dishonesty in science, when in fact Gould presented such cases for what they were — the sad exceptions of people who violated a system based on trust.
Gould’s overall message was to keep a close eye on the profession of science, always remembering it is conducted by less than perfect beings. But also keep in mind it is a profession that values truth and honesty more than anything else. And trust me on this — try living in Hollywood for a few years if you really want to see how amazingly ethical the profession of science is.
The last point to hit on in this essay is what Michael Crichton told me. When I began filming “Sizzle” in the summer of 2007, a Hollywood friend put me in touch with him through email. He was surprisingly talkative throughout our four month exchange of emails. I wish I could publish the emails as a book — they make for amazing reading — but I doubt his estate would let me. I never did get to meet him, and I disagreed with him a lot on the climate issues, but one major point he made was absolutely true, which is that “alarmism sells.”
You can’t deny this. On the day he went into detail about this, he challenged me to look at the front page of the NY Times the next day and see how many headlines were based not on existing crises, but on future, potential crises. I’ll be damned if the next day’s paper didn’t have four stories of exactly that — two stories of African future drought and famine, one story of U.S. water shortages, and one story about inevitable global fuel shortages. None of them were current crises. All of them were predicted potential future crises.
A non-crisis of today doesn’t sell. A potential future crisis does.
So let me bring it back to the content of my “Living on Earth” segment, and what troubled the fellow with the email above. Advocating that scientists develop a better understanding of the way in which stories work IS NOT advocating dishonesty any more than recommending someone visit a handimart store is a recommendation that they rob it.
STORYTELLING DEBATE: BRING IT ON
People involved in the climate issue are always challenging each other to debates — the skeptics all want to debate Al Gore, climate scientists want to debate Lord Monckton, fellow climate advocates want to debate Joe Romm. Well, I’m ready to debate anyone who wants to argue about the need for better storytelling in the mass communication of science. You pick the time and place, and if you can give me a big chunk of money to help pay my film debts, I will definitely be there!