Years ago, the cartoonist nonpareil Gary Larson showed a couple of guys out in the middle of the desert, totally parched, and clearly in desperate straits. Vultures were perched on a nearby cactus. But one of the men saw hope. He pulled out an aerosol can and was spraying himself with “Buzzard-be-Gone.”
Today, Andrew Revkin and Randy Olson are trying something similar.
Reading this? Chances are good you’ve heard of both men. Andy Revkin is the well-known science reporter for the New York Times. He’s on the faculty at Pace University, and he’s been blogging for years now on environmental issues. You can find him at Dot Earth. Randy Olson is a Harvard-educated, Ph.D. biologist who gave up a tenured faculty position to become a film maker. He’s written one of the best, most insightful books on science communication around – Don’t Be Such a Scientist: talking substance in an age of style. Oh – and did I say it’s hilarious? It’s hilarious.
Randy also blogs. You can find him at theBenshi.com (the Benshi were Japanese who narrated silent films – great blog title!). Recently, Olson ranted against climate scientists and their (our) approach to communicating their work to the larger public. He says we first tried to do it using our jargon. When that failed miserably and alienated a large part of our audience, we got our colleagues the communication scientists to do surveys, studies, focus groups, etc. We then have tried to toe that line. We think we can find a formula and stick to it, and bring the public around.
Randy has a fantastic metaphor for what we do wrong…an artist who’s puzzled because no one buys his “perfect” work. Here’s a try at a paraphrase. Suppose, as I was in fact 35 years ago, that I’m looking for a wife. I’m striking out, repeatedly! (The women were breaking out the Bill-be-Gone; it was flying off the shelves in stores.) But then I have a brilliant idea. I survey 1000 women. I get their preferences in men’s dress, hair style (I had hair then), posture, restaurant choices, flowers, cars, topics of conversation. In subsequent dates I go out and conform to the poll results!
I’d still be single today.
[Olson calls this worshiping the god of metrics.] Fortunately, I met an extraordinary woman who was so electrifying that I managed to get out of my scientist funk and engage from the heart. Seven weeks later, we were husband and wife. Still going strong today.
But back to Andy and Randy. Picture these two guys catching up with each other. Good individually, they’d be terrific together, right?
Andy interviewed Randy recently and posted the results on his blog. It’s a ten-minute video clip. Ten minutes! That’s a full-length documentary on the blogosphere. But it’s worth every minute. It’s worth viewing a second time. And more. Check it out. You’ll be glad you did.
In their discussion, Randy talks largely about how (climate) scientists are flunking communication because they’re afraid to take risks. They/we cling to the sterile peer-reviewed approach. Guilty as charged! But he could also have observed that we’re not risk-averse. By clinging to this approach…which has been demonstrably proven to fail, we’re establishing ourselves as certifiably insane. (“Insanity…is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.”) The real risk is failing to try something different.
Gary Larson kept returning to the vulture motif. Take this example: two buzzards are perched on a branch. One says to the other, “I’m tired of waiting for a critter to die. I’m going to go out and kill something.”