July 30th, 2013
Sitting here putting the final touches on our new book, “Connection: Hollywood Storytelling Meets Critical Thinking,” which will be released in September (I’ll be cranking up the hype machinery for the book next month). What is it with academics and being so conflict-averse? Don’t they realize conflict is central to storytelling, and storytelling is central to effective communication? It’s fascinating. And a little baffling.
EXCERPT FROM “FLOCK OF DODOS” (2006). This is Professor of Literature Gerald Graff of the University of Illinois, Chicago who three years after I interviewed him published a great book titled, “They Say, I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing,” along with his colleague, Professor Cathy Birkenstein. The climate community should have sought them out long ago for advice on how to argue convincingly with those who question climate change (instead of vilifying and running away from their opponents).
“CONFLICT IS TO STORYTELLING WHAT SOUND IS TO MUSIC”
That’s a quote from Robert McKee, the uber-guru of Hollywood screenwriting, from his foundational screenwriting manifesto, “Story,” that I cite in our new book. And as I sit here doing the final edits on our manuscript, I’m once again fascinated by how the science community in general, rather than viewing the anti-science attacks on science of the past decade (particularly against evolution and climate science) as the large communications opportunities they were, instead so often responded with panic, indignation and anger.
I remember seeing, in 2006, climate scientist Paul Mayewski on “60 Minutes” talking about the attacks on climate science, back when it was a relatively fresh issue. I wish I could find a transcript of that segment (if anyone knows an easy way to find it, would you please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d really appreciate it). I distinctly remember him conceding at least a tiny bit of a silver lining to the attacks by saying that the climate skeptics have lit a fire under the climate science community, causing them to have to get their act together better than before.
Which is true. It also helped push climate science in public thought and discussion — making it into something better than, “just talking about the weather” (and all the Mark Twain quotes about nobody ever doing anything about changing it).
What happened? Well, for starters despite efforts to ignore the climate skeptics, they’re still around. And despite effort from the climate community to say, “There is no debate about global warming,” there definitely has been and continues to be much debate on the topic.
Mayewski should have been put in charge of all climate communication. He was on the right track — look at your opponents as a foil, not as the devil incarnate.
TEACHING THE CONFLICTS
In my movie, “Flock of Dodos,” I interviewed Gerald Graff, Professor of Literature at University of Illinois, Chicago. He has been a long time advocate of this very approach — the idea of using “debates” as a means of educating the general public through argumentation.
Back then I gave his stuff a little bit of thought and said, “yeah, I think I agree.” Now, I feel different. I now STRONGLY agree with everything he has to say.
In the intervening years, he and his colleague Cathy Birkenstein co-authored an extremely popular college textbook (it has sold over one million copies) about this very topic titled, “They Say, I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing.”
At the heart of their book is CONFLICT. Arguments are exercises in conflict. The way you make arguments work is by bringing into focus the elements of conflicts, and in its simplest form just by presenting what your opponent says versus what you say — thus the title of their book, “They Say, I Say.”
ARGUMENTATION AND STORYTELLING: BOTH ABOUT CONFLICT
I am citing their book in our new book. They provide templates for argumentation, we provide templates for storytelling. We are on the same track.
The science community has had a hard time figuring out this basic dynamic. Which is a shame.