Randy Olson’s science communication suggestions

Recently, the film Flock of Dodos was screened at Yale, followed by a discussion with the director Randy Olson, science writer Carl Zimmer, and others. As you might infer from the title, a poke at March of the Penguins, the movie is a humorous take on the public controversy over intelligent design. Unfortunately, I didn’t even find out about this until after it had come and gone. But the discussion afterwards focused on how evolutionists should deal with ID, and from the report of one of the students in Lloyd’s class, Olson recommended an excellent approach (with Zimmer providing an opposing perspective more in line with the approach of Panda’s Thumb, NCSE, etc.). Fortunately, Zimmer has provided some of the material, Olson’s 10 suggestions for “improving communication,” and I think he pretty much nails it.

Especially notable is number 3: “The most effective means of communication is through storytelling. The shorter, more concise, and punchier the story you can tell, the greater the interest you will hold with an audience.”

Effective storytelling is something that the scientific community as a whole simply fails at. But, ironically, the humanist disciplines (e.g., history) are nearly as bad. Scholars of all persuasions can continue, as PZ Myers suggests and John Lynch seems to support as well, to emphasize their strengths of “depth, intelligence, evidence, history, the whole damn natural world, and just plain having the best and most powerful explanation for its existence.” But that just serves to further insulate an already insular group; putting more priority on effective mass communication does not mean abandoning good explanations, it just means making them available to non-scholars.

While the more practical branches of science might be able to justify their work in terms of the tangible technical payoffs that society gets from it, evolutionary biologists, historians, and most types of scholars simply don’t have any other reason to exist except for the general enrichment of society. Technical monographs and detailed case histories are a proximate goal to enhance the collective knowledge of a specialist community and body of literature, but we ought always to keep an eye on the larger goal of distilling the broad and deep scope of that literature into stories for the rest of society.

This is, of course, the same broad issue that draws me to Wikipedia, one of the easiest and most effective means of actually applying specialist knowledge to reshape public understanding. The way things are now, the extent of historical outreach is the occasional late-career book that aims at a (very limited) popular audience along with the requisite scholarly one. The only historical work that really makes it into public consciousness is what the media industries ask for from historians; Wikipedia (perhaps among other venues) is a chance for disciplines to shape their own public destinies and forge their own places in mass culture.