It is best if I start this blog by saying that I did NOT think I would actually get an interview with this author.
Randy Olson, for those of you who aren’t familiar with his work, is a scientist-turned-filmmaker, and currently works at Story Circles Narrative Training. Story Circles is a program that teaches people how to use narratives to write and communicate better. Randy uses the ABT method, which stands for And, But, Therefore. These three words are used to help both construct and analyze a narrative. Randy uses this framework to help both scientists better write grants and proposals, but also anyone looking to be a better communicator and writer.
Randy’s big documentary was Flock of Dodos in 2006, which focused on debates between intelligent design and the scientific theories of evolution.
Randy’s two best-selling books I recommend to all: Don’t Be Such a Scientist (2009) and Houston, We Have a Narrative (2015). Both of Randy’s books deal with how science is portrayed and communicated in the media and with the public. The books also give models and methods of how to communicate technical information to broader audiences. You can find these books here at Randy’s website.
I picked up Randy’s book Don’t Be Such a Scientist, out of curiosity by the title. I was about to head into my master’s program in Science Communication at Imperial College, London, and was researching books that would help me to better understand how science is currently being perceived and communicated by public audiences. Randy’s book was intriguing, to say the least, and extremely practical for helping to better shape my own writing. I went on to read Randy’s other book Houston, We Have a Narrative in the few months after reading his first book. I found it just as compelling and engaging as his previous work, and I was curious to better understand the author behind these two practical reads.
I had contacted Randy previously for an interview and was finally able to make contact. In our initial exchange over email, Randy told me: “I hope you’re not going to be offended when I begin by saying there shouldn’t even be such a topic as ‘science communication.”‘ This piqued my curiosity, as I wondered how an award-winning documentary maker such as Randy, who focused on climate change and the communication of science, didn’t want “science communication” as a topic to exist.
Once Randy and I started the interview, it became more apparent why Randy didn’t agree with “science communication” as a topic. Randy’s own personal reasons for this you can listen to in the interview below, as I’d rather him explain it in his own words.
Randy’s story is fascinating as there is only one other person I know has a similar background of scientist-turned-filmmaker: the late Michael Crichton. Randy and I did, in fact, talked about Crichton’s work and the impact he made on both the scientific community and the American public. Randy highlighted that a viewpoint that both he and Crichton shared, which is that scientists don’t listen. Crichton’s last speech, given at an AAAS event, discussed some of the big scientific issues. You can read the speech here, and better understand what Randy means when he says “scientists don’t listen.” By this Randy, explained that scientists don’t understand how the media works, and don’t understand how to communicate substance in the world of style. Randy further explains that scientists don’t like to be self-critical of their own communication, which has led to his books and himself not being fully accepted by the scientific community.
I highly recommend that everyone listen to Randy’s story below, as it is full of compelling, challenging, and humorous moments. It teaches all of us about how to better understand our own narratives, as well as how to better understand our scientific community.