12.16.2015

And, But, Therefore: Randy Olson and the Art of Science Storytelling, Part 2

Randy Olson, as you may know, is the scientist-turned-filmmaker whose movies include Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus and Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy. Olson also wrote Don’t Be Such A Scientist, and now has a new book, Houston, We Have a Narrative: Why Science Needs Story, which argues that scientists should incorporate more storytelling and narrative into how they discuss their findings. Olson writes that scientists should recognize that the narrative techniques developed by Hollywood can be used to make their science more engaging to the public. Without sacrificing scientific quality, researchers can bring their findings to life using the elements of drama.

Many people misunderstand drama. To remind me and inspire my own writing, I have permanently mounted in my home the famous memo playwright David Mamet sent to the writers of the television series The Unit. You should read the whole memo here, but here's the part most relevant to this discussion (Mamet’s shouting all-capitals style made lowercase):

Every scene must be dramatic. That means: the main character must have a simple, straightforward, pressing need which impels him or her to show up in the scene.

This need is why they came. It is what the scene is about. Their attempt to get this need met will lead, at the end of the scene, to failure—this is how the scene is over. It, this failure, will, then, of necessity, propel us to the next scene.

Start, every time, with this inviolable rule: the scene must be dramatic. It must start because the hero has a problem and it must culminate with the hero finding him or herself either thwarted or educated that another way exists.”

An important point here is that in a truly dramatic narrative, the protagonist must face failure. The movie Contact, based on the novel by Carl Sagan, made even the funding of science dramatic. Jodie Foster’s scientist character faces loss of funding for her research; she argues passionately for the value of her work and to keep her project going, knowing that her career could evaporate unless she convinces a skeptical board. This scene was dramatic because we identify with a vulnerable protagonist facing the risk of failure. At the other end of the spectrum, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace was the antithesis of drama because the protagonists faced no danger: the movie consisted of boring montages of bored, lightsaber-wielding Jedi cutting through endless armies of robots, without receiving a single scratch—no risk to the protagonists, no interest to the audience.

In drama, after repeated failures, the protagonist must change something about himself or herself or create something that allows for success. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos episode “The Clean Room” told the story of Clair Patterson’s attempt to determine the age of the Earth through uranium-lead dating, and of Patterson’s repeated failures because of ubiquitous lead contamination in the environment. Patterson essentially had to invent from scratch the concept of a clean room and the procedures for its use in order to overcome this difficulty. Neil deGrasse Tyson did a great job telling this scientific narrative as a dramatic arc—setting a goal, encountering failure, creating something to solve the problem.

These sorts of dramatic stories can make scientific discoveries engaging. But just as with the Force, there is a light side and a dark side to the power of scientific storytelling…which we will explore in part 3.