Book Review: Houston, We Have a Narrative by Randy Olson

October 14, 2015
Aaron Huertas
Former contributor

Can scientists learn good storytelling from South Park? Randy Olson, a marine biologist turned filmmaker, argues that they can. He had a key insight as a storyteller, he writes in his latest book, while watching a documentary about the creation of a single South Park episode.

One of the show’s creators said that when he edits a script, he replaces “ands” with “buts” and “therefores.” Olson argues that scientists tend to communicate by reciting a “sundry list of facts” connected with “ands.” Effective storytelling requires digging into conflict (the buts) and consequences (the therefores).

For instance, in Olson’s telling, a panel on sea level rise in which he participated could have easily come across as a disconnected parade of “ands,” with images, statistics, and tons of exposition. Instead, he and his co-presenters developed a series of “ABTs” or and-but-therefore statements to structure their talks. For instance:

For 8,000 years sea level has been stable AND civilizations have been built right to the edge of the ocean. BUT for the past 150 years sea level has been rising rapidly, THEREFORE it is now time to come up with a new management plan for coastal areas.

Such structures help audiences understand why facts and data matter, Olson argues.

I couldn’t agree more.

Olson’s book Houston, We Have a Narrative offers a synthesis and refinement of arguments he has been making for years, starting with 2009’s Don’t Be Such a Scientist. It’s a must-read for technical communicators, especially scientists.

Working the storytelling muscle

A lot of science communication workshops take place just over a day or so and scientists often don’t get enough time to practice the skills they’re learning, Olson argues. This is especially true for storytelling workshops, since it takes time to build a good narrative sense. Indeed, it’s the sort of skill that can take a lifetime to master.

Randy Olson's Houston, We Have a Narrative.

Randy Olson’s Houston, We Have a Narrative.

Scientists who want to succeed with Olson’s methods will have to not only read and process what he has to say, but also commit to thinking about how to communicate their work more effectively over time. To do so, Olson urges readers to form storytelling clubs with their colleagues. It may feel silly or even awkward at first, he writes, but around the third or fourth meeting things can and do start to click.

This isn’t an add-on to doing good science, either, Olson argues. Scientists are born storytellers, trying to make sense of data. Olson writes that even the humble scientific abstract benefits from adhering to an ABT structure and he presents several convincing case studies to underscore this point.

He challenges readers to re-examine what a story really is in the context of science. For instance, he chronicles how Watson and Crick told a good story when they challenged the old model of what DNA looks like. He also tracks the history of IMRAD, the now-accepted standard for how one “tells a story” in the scientific literature: introduction, methods, results, and discussion. And he lays out how positive and negative results correlate to archetypal plot structures.

It’s heady stuff, for sure, but it’s also what scientists and science communicators need to hear: Effective communication and storytelling are not optional add-ons for research; they are inherent to the research process itself.

Only narratives can save you

Many scientists have a fear of storytelling. After all, storytelling skills are often used to mislead people and policymakers about science. But there are distinctions to be made between bad stories and good stories – phrases we use to describe the quality of a narrative – and false stories and true stories – phrases we use to describe their veracity.

Olson tackles these distinctions head on and ably explains why scientists’ fears about narrative are largely unfounded.

For instance, in my own communications workshops, I often present two competing narratives about vaccines for scientists to analyze. The first one is a “good,” false story from Jenny McCarthy about a purported link between vaccines and autism:

I asked Olson what McCarthy’s ABT is here. He ventured that it would probably be something like, “Vaccines are widely administered AND no one questions them, BUT when my child received vaccines he became autistic, THEREFORE we need to be suspicious of vaccines.”

McCarthy also effectively illustrates her (false) story with specific details, such as her interactions with the doctor and watching the “light go out” of her child’s eyes.

Of course, scientists can’t counter misinformation with their own falsehoods. And too often, scientists interpret sensible communications advice as encouragement to do so. Nothing could be further from the truth and Olson knocks down such objections throughout his book. Good scientific narratives underscore what we know to be true, he says, with memorable examples that fit into a narrative.

So here’s a good, true story about vaccines. It comes from Paul Offit, who has probably done more to fight back against “anti-vaccine” sentiment than any other scientist. In a CBS interview, he explained clearly that vaccines are necessary for protecting children’s health and that there is no statistical relationship between vaccines and autism:

Offit goes a step further and offers a story about his wife to illustrate his point. Olson told me the ABT version of this story might go like this: My wife was giving a child a vaccine AND right before she gave him the shot, the child had a seizure BUT if the shot had come first, the parents obviously would have though the shot caused the seizure THEREFORE we can’t trust anecdotes, we can only trust data and science when it comes to vaccine safety.

Is that a little clunkier than Jenny McCarthy’s story? You bet. But it’s true. And it’s backed up by science. And the overwhelming majority of parents are listening to the Paul Offit’s of the world.

Olson likens the struggle to communicate the truth in a world full of misleading narratives to a fish swimming upstream. It can absolutely feel that way. I’m sure Offit felt that way many times when taking on scientific misinformation. His story about his wife, which he repeats often, puts his scientific pronouncements and related statistics into a necessary narrative context for audiences to understand his point. In a 3 minute interview, Offit could never hope to get an audience to understand correlation and causation, data quality, peer review lapses, and p-values, but he can tell them an accurate story.

Scientists have to tell their own stories because other people are already telling them

Olson’s work is important because he speaks the language of a scientist and the language of a storyteller. He makes a compelling case that scientists are already storytellers. He also hints at a deeper need to communicate that I wish more scientists understood: if you’re not telling your story, somebody else is telling it for you.

There are lots of stories about science in society: politicians criticizing research grants as wasteful, ideologues perpetuating the myth of a climate science “hoax,” and more simply, people who simply dismiss scientists as out-of-touch with everyday life.

Those stories are being told, often in compelling and untrue ways. Scientists and communicators need to tell their own stories about why science matters to society and to our everyday lives.

The world needs science, and that’s why science needs story.

Olson’s book offers a communications challenge worth rising to and is a valuable addition to any science communicator’s  library.