Houston, We Have a Narrative: Why Science Needs Story Reprint Edition, Kindle Edition
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I won’t get into the specifics; it would be unfair to Olson and I’d probably simplify too much and that would be a disservice to everyone. If you are a scientist who wants to better explain what you do, why your work or research matters, Olson’s arguments will get you out of your comfort zone to make better, more concise arguments. If you are involved with a science-based organization and want to get your message out in a compelling way, this book will provide measurable markers to incorporate into your daily routine. Or if you are interested in scientific issues like climate change, disease like cancer or Alzheimer’s, medical research funding, and are confused or frustrated about why others don’t take them as seriously as you do, this book will provide you with refreshing and effective ways to make your case.
This ability is on full display in Houston, We Have a Narrative. Insightful, pragmatic, amusing, and, above all, useful, the book convinces me that I must work harder to make my students aware of how essential narrative is as a rhetorical tool. And though Dr. Olson’s efforts are designed to have a transformative effect on communication within the sciences, his message is universal. His strategies will work just as well for my Composition in the Humanities students (in fact, they are equally applicable in my literature courses).
I’ve read criticisms of Dr. Olson that suggest he seeks to dumb down science by reducing it to sound bites or plot points. I bristle at such suggestions. Giving a narrative structure to information does not mean damaging the information. I sometimes sing ideas at my students. Does the singing mean I’m not delivering the content? Well, I can guarantee, at the very least, it means my students aren’t sleeping. Sleeping students don’t learn, nor do sleeping readers.
Narrative engages. Thank you, Dr. Olson, for encouraging scientists (and communicators in general) to grab their readers by the lapels and engage.
As Olson says in his latest book ‘Houston We Have a Narrative’, “science now faces problems with scientific research (false positives and a bias against null results) and with science communication (delivering boring presentations at best, unintentionally fostering antiscience sentiment at worst). Underlying both is a lack of narrative intuition”.
Olson’s intuitive insight evolved through a series of films he has made since leaving academe. The critically acclaimed ‘Flock of Dodos’ deftly exposed the creationism – evolution debate, while ‘Sizzle’ put the comedy spotlight on global warming. And in his previous book ‘Don’t be such a Scientist’ one finds the seeds of inspiration for the present work.
What Olson learned from these varied forays in communicating science was that most scientists are lousy at story-telling. With a few notable exceptions that are given ample highlight in ‘Houston …’, scientists are poor communicators that neither enlighten their peers, engage the media nor inspire interest or fascination from the public. This general failure to explain science successfully is a much bigger issue than some ivory-tower brouhaha. It lies at the heart of many of the major issues facing humanity today, and plays directly into the hands of those who would manipulate and capitalize on public confusion.
In ‘Houston We Have a Narrative’ Olson provides the background, the rationale and the narrative tool templates for addressing this major shortcoming: “Science is permeated with story. Both the scientific method and the communication of science are narrative processes. Yet the power and structure of story are neither widely taught nor openly advocated.”
In developing his thesis, Olson has worked with an eclectic group of gifted colleagues with very different areas of expertise. They have workshopped their novel science story-telling approach with disparate groups, from undergrads to senior researchers and from the Arctic Circle to the tropics. Needless to say, Olson’s ideas have been well and truly ‘field tested’. The result, ‘Houston We Have a Narrative’ is eminently readable and enlightening, indeed entertaining, and I have no hesitation in commending it to scientist and non-scientist alike.
Lyndon DeVantier, PhD
Author (with Catherine Cheung) of ‘Socotra A Natural History of the Islands and Their People’
For this ordinary man, it's a hero's journey, everyday, to infinity and beyond!
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