Thursday, March 29, 2018

Houston: We Have a Narrative by Randy Olson

Periodically I review books related to science communication. This is a review of Houston, We Have a Narrative: Why Science Needs Story by Randy Olson (2015, University of Chicago Press, 256 pp).

Randy Olson is a former marine biologist who gave up his tenured professorship to move to Hollywood and become a film-maker. With "Houston," he builds on his earlier book ("Don't Be Such a Scientist") and the experience he has gained from the story-telling world of movies. The book has a simple message for scientists - you need a narrative. 

It's not that simple, of course, and Olson does a great job of introducing some simple methods scientists can use to communicate their science to other scientists and to the public. He emphasizes that the key to storytelling is to find the narrative core - the message people will take away. He employs what he calls a WSP Model, the shrinking down of the core message to one word, one sentence, and one paragraph. Two principle techniques are what he calls the Dobzhansky Template ("Nothing in _______ makes sense except in the light of ______.") and ABT.

ABT really is the central point of the book. The story should follow an AND, BUT, THEREFORE structure. Much of the book discusses what this is, how to develop it, and techniques for using it to communicate your story. It's simple, but powerful. 

There is much more: the Heroes Journey, the Logline maker, the story templates. And let's not forget McKee's Triangle of three pure story forms - antiplot, miniplot, and archplot. The archplot is the key. Study it, learn it, use it.

As examples he explains how the communication of climate change is "Bo-ho-horing" and fits a classic "miniplot" storyline. The combination creates a communications mess that explains why the public still doesn't understand the urgency. That's a problem. 

Olson's writing style is mostly fluid and with a wisp of humor threading through it. He leans a lot on his own experiences, both in the science world and the film making world. I would highly recommend all scientists to read the book and practice the techniques. Your colleagues and the public will understand you a lot better. 

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Hundreds of Mayors Call Out Scott Pruitt's Attack on Clean Energy

On Tuesday, February 20th, 236 mayors sent a letter to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt warning him to stop attacking the nation's clean energy. Scott Pruitt is well known for his acts to destroy environmental and human health protections, in direct violation of his mandate as head of the EPA. The mayors responded vehemently.

Collectively, we represent over 51 million residents, in 47 states & territories across the country. We strongly oppose the proposed repeal of the Clean Power Plan, which would put our citizens at risk and harm our efforts to address the urgent threat of climate change.

The Clean Power Plan is simply a collection of EPA rules that address long-standing needs related to climate and clean energy. The rules were proposed by EPA during the Obama administration. Scott Pruitt is trying to roll back or void these rules to benefit the fossil fuel industry for whom he has been a front man for many years.

The overall goal of the Clean Power Plan is to reduce the amount of carbon pollution emitted into the atmosphere. Carbon pollution is the major cause of global warming, and action to reduce carbon in the oceans and air is absolutely necessary. And it's necessary now. The Clean Power Plan seeks to reduce carbon pollution by 30% by the year 2030, with substantial reductions occurring by 2020. It was

Rather than simply dictate how this will be done, the Clean Power Plan allows each state to determine how best to achieve the goals, and the specific goals are different depending on the circumstances of each state. The rules will lead to a reduction in reliance on carbon-dirty energy resources like coal, oil and natural gas (especially the former) and an increase in more sustainable renewable energy resources like solar, wind, and hydroelectric.  How this happens is up to each state. They may:

  • make improvements in efficiently directly at the power plants
  • increase energy from renewable sources
  • generate more clean energy
  • expand programs promoting energy efficiency and conservation

Mayors across the country provided input into the development of the Plan and strongly indicated that cities and states needed help from the federal government to address these national and global issues. In their letter they reminded Scott Pruitt that:

No one is insulated from the impacts of climate change – people in cities of all sizes, along with suburban and rural communities are all at risk. Residents of our communities have experienced harmful impacts of climate change such as dirtier air, increased heat-related illnesses and deaths, damaged and disappearing coastlines, longer droughts and other strains on water quantity and quality, and increasingly frequent and severe storms and wildfires.

These mayors took this extraordinary step to keep Pruitt and Trump from destroying all human health and environmental protections. Doing so would endanger all Americans, immediately and through our children's and grandchildren's lifetimes.

The full mayors letter can be read here. More in The Hill and Inside Climate News.