Sometimes you see things only when you’re looking for them. Or as a wise friend of mine says “the teacher emerges when the student is ready to learn.” Perhaps that’s why I keep running into Randy Olson’s stuff these days. Olson is the Harvard-trained Ph.D. biologist who gave up a tenured professorship at the University of New Hampshire to move to Hollywood and become a filmmaker. At the time, he was 38 years old – young in the world of tenured academia but old by Hollywood standards, and (I can relate to this) fairly middle-aged to be making such a radical career change. But as Olson describes in his book “Don’t Be Such a Scientist,” he increasingly became frustrated with scientists’ inability to communicate scientific information – information critical to global well-being — to the public. Hollywood in contrast, was all about engaging people and he wanted to learn how to do that. The short answer: heart and gut, not brain and intellect.
In other words, most people respond to information emotionally and all the data in the world probably won’t move them. Ironically, scientific studies confirm this. Chris Mooney provides an enlightening exploration of these studies in Mother Jones, explaining how human emotions drive reasoning and how we’re all masters of denial when faced with overwhelming evidence that contradicts our most treasured beliefs
I’m ripe for hearing this these days. In recent years I inexplicably have been drawn to new ways of approaching the same old problem, namely, how to save the Earth. Over a two decade career I’ve worked on staff for a scientific society (the Ecological Society of America), a congressional watchdog agency (the Government Accountability Office), conservation groups (such as the Marine Conservation Institute), and as a consultant to many others. To varying degrees at each organization, we believed that if only people knew the truth, they’d see the light, and it was our job to share that truth. But somehow, despite our best efforts, the Earth hasn’t been saved yet.
I first learned about Olson, appropriately enough, through my work with the American Conservation Film Festival (ACFF) in Shepherdstown WV where I now live. ACFF embraces the reality that the way to engage people is through storytelling, and as one of its film reviewers I screened Olson’s film Sizzle as a possible entry for this year’s festival. Unlike the other climate change films I screened, Sizzle made me laugh. Yes laugh. I didn’t learn as many facts about the dire impacts of climate change or the scientific consensus about its anthropogenic origins as I did from other, more documentary-style films. But, I thought, perhaps climate skeptics would also laugh at the nerdy scientist protagonist and his socially inept quest to alert the world, and be more open to what he had to say. It’s hard to get defensive at someone who makes you laugh.
Clearly there are limitations to this approach: yes, emotions engage and sex sells, but sometimes facts and figures are just what’s needed. Still, as I shift gears mid-career towards writing for a broad audience (beyond policymakers), I try to incorporate Olson’s core lesson into my work and recognize that there are many routes to environmental awareness. I explored some of these other paths in my recent piece for The Observer, drawing on readers’ sense of adventure, wonder, and inspiration to tell the story of the mid-Atlantic’s wildest seashore, Assateague. I had a blast doing it and hope to do much more in additional pieces down the road.