#8) INTERVIEW: TOM HOLLIHAN, USC Annenberg School for Communication — “Storytelling and Global Warming”
January 28th, 2010
This is the first in an on-going series of short interviews I’ll be doing here on The Benshi with people whom I think have unique insights to offer the world of science communication.
In 1998, just after finishing film school, I made a 20 minute video titled, “Talking Science: The Elusive Art of the Science Talk.” I interviewed a number USC faculty in Theater, Communications, Cinema and the sciences. My favorite character in all the interviews was Tom Hollihan, Professor of Communication, USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. He came out with this little snippet of “arouse and fulfill” (in the clip below) that has stuck with me as I’ve used it in talks and in my book. People seem to really connect with the simplicity and punchiness of the phrase. His area of expertise is more in the world of politics, as evidenced by his books, “Uncivil Wars: Political Campaigns in a Media Age” (2001), “Argument at Century’s End: Reflecting on the Past and Envisioning the Future“ (2000). But he also has worked with groups of scientists over the years from Lawrence Berkeley Lab, Boeing, Northrup Grumman, Department of Defense and several universities. In this chat I was looking for his perspective on the importance of storytelling in the world of science, and it’s relevance to current discussions and debates around global warming.
THE ORIGIN OF “AROUSE AND FULFILL”
RO – I’ve been trying to make you famous in the science world for about ten years now as the “arouse and fulfill” guy. The phrase catches fire with many science folks who have no formal background in communications — it’s a simple and practical couplet. So, what’s the history? I know you told it to me ten years ago, as just kind of a piece of common knowledge in the field of communication. Please explain to me the background of “arouse and fulfill.”
TH – I don’t know that there’s any one single place for the origin of this notion. Where I would say to go looking for it is Kenneth Burke, who was a communication critic and cultural critic. He wrote a book called “Counter-Statement” (published in 1931). He talked about the notion of form. He said that what really matters to people is that they go into encounters with a sense of expectation about form. That sense of expectation has to be fulfilled, in order to satisfy them. If you violate their expectations too much it’s not going to get the appropriate response from the audience that you as a communicator are looking for.
The other place it strongly emerges is in the early 1950’s. Alan Monroe, at the University of Iowa, comes up with what he calls Monroe’s Motivated Sequence, in which he doesn’t specifically use those terms, but he clearly is describing those principles. He’s talking about the notion of peaking a person’s interest. Defining a problem in that sort of way, responding to the way you’ve defined it, and then satisfying them in that you’ve defined it in the same way that they would.
RO – Do you think there has been a shift in the importance of those two terms (arouse and fulfill) in recent years?
TH – I’ll tell you what I think is happening recently is more and more people are becoming aware that people tell stories. It used to be the notion of storytelling itself was controversial, but now across literatures you’ll see the references to storytelling and narratives, and the challenge of testing and producing coherent and compelling narratives. More and more social science testing is confirming that people will respond to certain kinds of arguments. You can trace the emergence and development of argumentative truths when you see people struggle and wrestle with turning them into compelling stories.
In the earliest years, people had kind of a “hypodermic needle” model of communication. The assumption was that I’m just going to inject you with my message and you’re going to be infected by it. But now we’re realizing it’s much more complex — we’re exposed to competing stories. Stories have to be told again and again to gain traction. True stories sometimes don’t gain support because people become drawn into really compelling narratives that may be sort of conspiracies or things that sort of mystify the storytelling process.
THE IMPORTANCE OF STORYTELLING
RO – Can you tell me more about the development of storytelling as you’ve seen it?
TH – You know, heroes act in a way that can be called heroic. If you sent the hero into a narrative and the hero acted in such a way that was opposite of what a moral or ethical expectation of that hero would be, it would flaw the whole story. So for example, we send a liberal G.I. to Iraq, to help the Iraqis, that’s a great narrative, until you get an image like Abu Ghraib, that says “wait a minute,” that’s not the way the moral actor is supposed to behave, that’s the way the militant behaves, and it flaws the whole story. That sense of storytelling has been around since at least the 1930’s.
Starting in the 1980’s the language shifts a little bit to principles of narrative, in that we all are imbedded in stories, we exist in a world that is experienced through stories. So if I grow up as I did, a kid in middle class America, in the Midwest, then I have a sense of historical purpose of my nation. I have a sense of the moral purpose, I’m going to make sense of the world in accordance with my sense of my personal experience, as well as my cultural experience, my family narrative, immigrant narrative, from study hard and work in school sort of narratives.
The world comes to us as a set of stories. And from these stories we pick and choose our own stories, and make sense of the world around us, sharing those stories with others. One way to think about this is that the world is engaged in unending conversation. It’s akin to a cocktail party. You arrive at a cocktail party, you get your drink and go over to one corner of the room, the conversation’s been going on before you got there but you listen a little bit until you find out what they are talking about, and you are ready to chip in your own two cents, and in the nature of doing so, your contributions redirect the conversation a little bit, pretty soon all the original participants move on, refilling their glass, new participants join you, the conversation is still carrying on, you still have a sense of memory of what came before you, but none of the others do, but they get a sense of it from what you are saying.
RO – You mentioned in the 1980’s the language shifted, did Joseph Campbell play a part in that?
TH – Campbell introduced the notion of “myth”. He talked about an explicit sort of storytelling which is imbedded in myth and mystery. He took a very anthropological focus. This is a topic that people were coming at from all kinds of disciplines. Anthropologists were talking about different narratives and myths, people in law were talking about legal narratives and the power of storytelling in court interactions, politicians were talking about political stories. People in psychology were using slightly different language, but were talking about something they called “schema” theory. Which says that we get a repertoire of certain strategies in which we navigate situations. And we don’t necessarily have to go through them all, we make short-hand decisions about which situation this story responds to, and go into retrieval and pull out the story the situation most resembles.
RO – What about the world of science?
TH – Science has been wrestling with this for longer than others, because scientists have had this notion that they have these particular kinds of empirical truths, and that they didn’t have to engage in much storytelling because their data spoke for them. But what they started to see was gee whiz, you know different scientists interpret data differently, or by leaving this or that data out, let certain other kinds of data fade into the background. As scientists started to become aware that not everybody saw the data the way they did, they would start to assemble competing narratives. Those narratives are very dependant upon interests. And where you stand is very dependent upon where you sit. So if you are a climate scientist, you are going to be much more anxious about climate than if you are a geologist or something else. We all pull from our own language constructs, from our own paradigms, and we are going to develop narratives that reflect those values, perspectives, experiences, training, etc.
RO – Are scientists storytellers, and if so why don’t they use the word “storytelling” in their profession?
TH – I work with scientists as a consultant and as a trainer. When you work with scientists you can get them to actually understand what that word means when you get them to accept the notion that storytelling doesn’t mean telling fictions, it means instead constructing “real” fictions. You know it may not be the truth that everyone accepts as the absolute truth, but they are based on someone’s perception of the truth, or a truth that is somewhat based on empirical knowledge.
RO – What’s that phrase — “real fictions”?
TH – “Real fictions” are constructed in a sense that they are all made based upon the assumptions that we make. But there’s also confirmatory experiences or data, which causes one to believe that they’re credible. You know certain areas of science — and I’m not a scientist so forgive me if I go too far with this — but if you look for instance at scientific consensus for health and nutrition over the years, you’ll see all kinds of competing data and competing stories, competing narratives. They’re all constructed based on the state of knowledge at the time, generated upon a sense of experience, data, and interpretation of that data from a certain perspective. And they compete with each other. Over time, one becomes supplanted by the other, as new sorts of data, or new consequences are seen. And so it’s an evolutionary kind of activity that occurs within a scientific community.
THE DEBATE AROUND GLOBAL WARMING
RO – Is there real debate when it comes to science?
TH – There’s clearly debate. To say that there’s debate by the way, doesn’t mean that there aren’t points upon which many of the issues are settled. You know clearly there are, there are issues where people seem to be in agreement, but clearly there are points where these ideas are in flux, people arguing about what the meaning will be, what the consequences will be, how likely it could be that this is just a natural process, how likely it could be that there will be other forms of correction for some of these things. You know first of all I think that debates will always occur because people’s perspectives will differ, because there’s competition for resources, because we offer compensation for certain kinds of activities.
To go back to the concept of form, because much of scientific, or social scientific theory is created around the concept of form, that to make space for my ideas, I have to symbolically slay the work of others that has come before. So you know we teach graduate students to write their reviews of literatures, not to celebrate the works that have come before but to critique their inadequacies. So I think by nature there are going to be unsettled issues, and debates, and you know the rivals in scientific communities are going to be arguing about whose data is more reliable, who has science and justice, and even goodwill on their side.
RO – What do you think about the attacks on climate science?
TH – I think the “attacks” are first of all, if those who are claiming that we are on the edge of a climate disaster are correct — and I think the data are leaning towards unfortunately looking like they are correct — but if they are correct then that’s going to have huge consequences. It’s going to fundamentally change the way that we live our lives. It’s going to mean sacrifice. It’s going to mean costs. It’s going to dislocate technologies. It’s going to create tensions between the developed and the less-developed parts of the world, and it’s going to cause huge injustices between who bears the costs. You know, the people in the Maldives, or Bangladesh, even though they didn’t cause the problem, suffer before anyone else, they’re sort of canaries in the coal mine. So the obligations that are at stake, the obligations of political leaders, of economic of business leaders to meet the needs of their stakeholders or their political constituents, means that of course there are going to be huge arguments. If you look at the nature of the human as a reasoning creature, it is that you look for opportunities. And I seek flaws in your arguments. I don’t necessarily go after your strongest arguments. I go after where I can find a chink in your armor to demonstrate a weakness of an assumption you make.
RO – So do you know of a term from the world of communications theory for the idea of using trivia to attack entire institutions?
TH – In terms of communication theory, I can’t think of a particular strategy. You know when I teach it, I talk about whether you use a mutually assured destruction strategy versus a tactical weapon. Mutually assured destruction tries to decimate every argument, and a strategic weapon looks for a particular vulnerability, where if I take one specific argument out, for instance if I knock the leg out on your chair, your entire platform crumbles to the ground, and no longer supports your weight.
Years ago the classical Greeks talked about levels of “stasis,” for which stasis would be the point at which you reach a level of disagreement. There are at least four levels, which are:
LEVEL ONE: Fact
LEVEL TWO: Definition
LEVEL THREE: Degree
LEVEL FOUR: Objection
The weakest is at the level of just objection, like legal objection in a courtroom — you may be right about all these arguments, but in some way I object to them because they’re not appropriate to this forum. Now if I can get you at the top level — the level of the total fact, then I would discredit you more easily than if I get down to the narrow. It seems in the global warming debate, much of the discussion now is sort of at the level of objection. People are saying we shouldn’t focus on what sacrifices we in the U.S. should make because we should be worried about India and China. If the world was a fair place we’d make them share the burden — we shouldn’t have to do it first. Which doesn’t discount any of the science of the theory, it just gets down to this level of the weakest claim you can make. People will go through these different levels of debate and they will seize on the one that gives the biggest advantage to their situation.
RO – Can you go through these four levels for the issue of global warming?
TH – Sure. Fact would be just the argument that this warming is natural — questioning whether this is even a non-natural problem worth worrying about. Definition would be saying warming is occurring, but it’s not occurring in a way that the world won’t be able to adapt to it easily. Degree would be to say that it’s a localized problem that won’t take sacrifices to the extent that are being discussed, and Objection would be as I said before, simply objecting to the idea of just the U.S. making sacrifices — that it’s India and China who should be doing the sacrificing.
RO – Final question to kind of wrap it up and come full circle back to the start. We began talking about arouse and fulfill and form. There are certain storylines that I know from screenwriting. And then there is a pre-existing form, and certain storylines that people are perceptive to. Are we talking about the same thing?
TH – Yes, from the very first experiences we have with our mother holding us on our knee, we are exposed to stories. We are exposed to literature, we go to school and whatnot. And so the process of accumulating knowledge is essentially a process of fitting that narrative into a form.
Religion is of course a great example of an institution that is constructed of a particular set of stories. I was raised Catholic, so I can tell you there are all kinds of stories — you know the little martyr, and the enemies were attacking, and the host got knocked down to the floor and killed and the martyr was on his knees and he ate the host with his tongue because he didn’t want to touch it — we remember some of these very vivid narratives that are a part of how this information comes to us, and these narratives are almost always grounded in a form that gives us a sense of what the appropriate conduct will be — if you are confronted with a certain act, what the appropriate response for me.
So when it comes to the global warming debate, it is very interesting to me that no one has sought to tell a conservative Christian story about the environment — well, I won’t say no one has done that but we haven’t seen too much traction with those sort of narratives, but those stories exist as resources, for storytellers to use and to begin to adopt them. If you think of the film “Avatar,” think of all the stories we’ve been telling for years, about the relationships between humans and the environment, or the stories about native peoples or machines. They are waiting there as a sort of resource for a storyteller to come in and tell a story that really matches in with what the audience is already willing to grasp and understand.