Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Science and storytelling

Last night on my way home, I listened to a Radio West interview with scientist and filmmaker Randy Olson. Olson posits that although scientists are doing some really cool stuff, they’re lousy storytellers and therefore do a poor job communicating their findings to the public.

When one considers that people still believe vaccines cause autism, climate change is a myth*, and that the earth was created in six 24-hour days, it’s pretty clear that either Olson is right and scientists are doing a crummy job telling their stories in a manner that people understand, or else there are a lot of really gullible people out there who have no critical thinking skills and lack the ability to make a rational decision based on the available evidence.

*As a freshman in college and a literal believer in the Bible, I was deeply offended when my humanities professor, who claimed to be a believer, referred to the creation story in the book of Genesis as a myth. Although the climate change skeptics use the word “myth” to make a value judgment implying that climate change is either untrue or not caused by humans, in reality the word myth simply means a story used to explain a certain phenomenon without regard to whether the explanation is “true” or not.

Since that time, I’ve become more comfortable with this definition of myth while concurrently becoming less certain of the historicity of the Bible. Adam was made of a lump of clay and Eve one of his ribs? Well what about Lucy, then? There was no death on the earth before the fall? Then what happened to the dinosaurs?

The ancient Greeks believed that the seasons came about because Persephone had to spend a season each year in the underworld with Hades, and while we know now that the seasons are a result of the earth’s tilt on its axis varying the amount and directness of sunlight as the earth orbits the sun, at the time, the Persephone story was the best explanation available. No intelligent person today would buy the Persephone explanation for the seasons, yet why do so many people believe the Jewish creation myth that Adam and Eve were literally the first humans and that the earth was created in six 24-hour days when so much compelling evidence exists to the contrary? Does it make the Bible any less valuable if viewed as an allegory?

My point in bringing this up is that I think one of the best scientific storytellers is not a scientist at all, but a technology research salesman, Alex. I spend a lot of time outdoors, and much of what I know about the things I’ve observed in the natural world I’ve learned from his blog. He does a great job using his real-life adventures, with which I can relate, to teach a lesson about science. And I think that’s awesome.

Not only that, but his influence on blog style is also worth noting. That embedded commentary above? I picked that concept up from Alex. It’s a great way to tell a story within a story, which is one technique he uses to make his science lessons more interesting. I’m not the only one who’s taken to using it, either.

So why am I bringing this up? To blow sunshine up Alex’s skirt? Because he owes me money and I’m trying to collect? Hardly. He doesn’t owe me money, and I’m not nearly that nice of a friend. I just wanted to point out that Alex is on vacation*, so while he’s sitting on the beach sipping umbrella drinks, I did a guest post on his blog. Actually two of them, since it’s in two parts, today and tomorrow. It’s nothing like anything you’ve ever read here because it involved actual research. If you’ve ever been curious about yeast, click on over.

*His brother Ray is house sitting and brought his vicious dog, so if you’re a burglar, don’t get any ideas.


  1. Climate change? I really wish I still had that National Geographic from the 1970's that talked about how we were headed into a new ice age. Our record at forecasting recent past climate is pretty good. Our record at forecasting future climate is laughable. Actually, it isn't that good.

  2. I actually picked it up from Joe Posnanski*, probably the best blogger I read. Of course, he's a professional writer... so there is that. I tried to implement it a while back, but sort of forgot about doing so. Recently, I've been doing it more.


  3. I caught part of that episode of Radio West too and will download the podcast to listen to the whole thing. It is a topic that has been on my mind recently; why don't people believe the science? Not just about climate change, but also evolution and basically anything that requires people to think past the scales of human time and space? I think the answer is two fold: 1) we scientists are bad at explaining things, and 2) people would rather watch Dancing with the Stars than learn something.

    A couple of days ago as I was out on my bike and saw a cholla cactus, I thought, "Alex would have some interesting life-story-biology-lesson about this cool plant. Why didn't my botany teacher teach like Alex?" Yup, we need primary and secondary teachers like Alex, but do you think it is any coincidence that the good teachers are in well paying sales jobs rather than getting paid peanuts to teach in overcrowded schools?

    I've picked up on that tangent blogging style from Alex too, but unfortunately, my tangents are not nearly as entertaining.