#27) INABILITY TO LISTEN: “THE SINGLE BIGGEST REASON WHY SCIENTISTS ARE OFTEN SUCH INEFFECTIVE COMMUNICATORS”
April 5th, 2010
WHAT ARE WORDS FOR WHEN SCIENTISTS DON’T LISTEN ANY MORE?
In his review of my book in Science magazine Peter Kareiva (referring to both Cory Dean’s book and mine) said, “Dean and Olson underemphasize the single biggest reason why scientists are often such ineffective communicators. The failure of scientists as communicators is that they do not know how to listen.”
True dat. I demonstrated this behavior myself with the first encounter with my crazy acting teacher which is the opening vignette of my book. In that moment, as she was screaming all her profanity at me, I was actually proving beyond a doubt what Kareiva says because there was only one thing going through my mind as she yelled her criticisms — “You’re wrong. You’re wrong. You’re wrong.”
I wasn’t listening at all. She was saying things that didn’t fit my little paradigm and so, being a good scientist, I ignored her.
It took me seven years for most of her criticisms to finally sink in. Everything she said in 1995 about me being overly cerebral didn’t really resonate until 2002 when I went back to working with academics and was able to see myself in their behavior. Her critique was accurate, but being a scientist, I wasn’t listening very much.
And so now I feel like I’m in her situation in trying to communicate to the science world what she had said to me. There seems to be a certain number of scientists who have their fingers in their ears, singing “la-la-la-la-la …” These are generally the same scientists who don’t or won’t come to my talks, but I always hear about them. I visit a campus, give my talk, go to dinner with the organizers, then hear one of them say, “You know, the guy who REALLY should have been at your talk is …” They all nod their heads in agreement, laugh, then one of them says, “But he would never do that.” And they sigh with sadness.
The scientist they refer to is almost always an AGW (someone recently told me the same letters representing Anthropogenic Global Warming also stand for Angry Gray-haired White men, which usually fits these particular scientists).
TWO SOURCES OF RESISTANCE TO THE BOOK: HEARING AND PROCESSING
So there’s that first obstacle I face in getting the communication message across to the science community, and then there’s the second element of what we can call “absorption and digestion.”
Just as with feeding physiology, there is a certain time lag involved in even the avid readers managing to consume and process the things I’m talking about. A couple weeks ago, speaking at NASA Goddard Flight Center in Maryland I mentioned this in my talk in a rather offhand way that probably didn’t come off so well. Todd Baldwin, the superstar Island Press editor of my book was in the audience. Later he said to me, “Um, you know your thing about unlikeability — I think you had a little dose of it in what you were saying about people not ‘getting’ your book.”
What he was referring to was that I said, “It’s really nice how a lot of bloggers reviewing the book say that at 185 pages it’s a quick read — one good friend blew through it in a single train ride. Which is nice, but … the fact is, much of the content — particularly the chapter on storytelling — will take you years — maybe even over a decade — to fully understand.”
Which is true. But Todd was also correct — that sounds pretty bad. In fact, it directly echoes the story I tell in the book of the scientist in a debate telling the audience, “Most of you wouldn’t even understand this bit.”
It might be true, but it still comes off as arrogant.
THE SEVENTEEN YEAR ITCH
So I didn’t mean it to sound superior. It’s just that a lot of this communication stuff really does take a long time to fully process, especially when it comes to storytelling. I took at least five writing classes and still managed to direct a first feature film out of film school that had a terrible script which failed to tell a well-structured story. I just plowed right in, saying, “Who needs storytelling!” And promptly drove my directing career into the ditch, only to finally “hear” what the instructors were saying 7 years later when finally editing Flock of Dodos.
From the time of my first screenwriting course in 1989 to the time of my life-altering experience in 2005 with storytelling during the editing of Dodos — that was 16 years. That’s how long it took me, the scientist, to actually LISTEN to the writing instructors who said story structure is so important.
Not coincidentally, my Intermediate Directing Instructor Eddie Dmytryk, who was 86 at the time and the director of “Seventy four God damn Hollywood feature films,” as he used to curse to us, used to say, “You kids don’t know nothing — it’ll take you 17 years to learn how to properly direct a feature film.”
And I guess 17 years is an important amount of time in Hollywood because my crazy acting teacher used to scream at us, “You’re not a failure until you’ve given it SEVENTEEN YEARS!” She did this to bolster the confidence of the young, aspiring new actors who, after a year of solid rejection would be ready to give up. Her point was that it can take many years to finally break through. But her second point was that there does eventually come a time where you have to accept, “It just didn’t happen.” Many of the kids in both my acting and filmmaking classes in 1994 are now coming up on seventeen years since they started, which for most is painful to watch.