And, But, Therefore: Randy Olson and the Art of Science Storytelling, Part 3

In parts 1 and 2, I looked at Randy Olson’s new book, Houston, We Have a Narrative: Why Science Needs Story, and saw a number of positive examples of how science storytelling can be done well to communicate science. But the techniques of dramatic storytelling are also available to creationists and science-deniers. Today we’ll examine cases where narrative techniques are used with malicious intent.

Creationists love to tell the following story: Evolution is wrong, and scientists know evolution is wrong, but scientists are either too cowardly to challenge establishment thinking, or they are part of a grand conspiracy to promote materialistic thinking as a way to undermine religion. Only brave creationists, this narrative goes, have the courage to stand up to the evolution orthodoxy. They imagine themselves modern-day Galileos, boldly speaking truth to power.

This story makes for a compelling narrative. But it is dead wrong.

Climate change deniers spin a related yarn. Climate scientists, this story goes, know that there are problems with the standard thinking about global warming, but they are too afraid of the reaction of their peers and the loss of grant funding to speak out. According to this denialist narrative, climate scientists continue to publish papers linking CO2 and climate change not because they think this linkage is real, but because they are forced to do so in order to maintain their careers.

Again, this story is engaging. But it is a fiction.

One of the worst examples of using narrative fiction to attack climate science is Michael Crichton’s 2004 novel State of Fear. Crichton, author of The Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park, and Prey, has the ironic distinction of being an anti-science science fiction writer. Not only did Crichton reject climate science, but he also declined to accept second-hand smoke as a health hazard, refused to acknowledge DDT as an environmental problem, wanted to shut down the EPA, and for good measure thought the SETI radio telescope project was “unquestionably a religion,” while environmentalism he dubbed “the religion of choice for urban atheists.” Crichton estimated that “environmentalism has already killed somewhere between 10-30 million people since the 1970s.”

In Crichton’s books, scientists are often villains or dupes responsible for unleashing technologically-created terrors into the world. In The Andromeda Strain, for example, a returning satellite brings with it a deadly microorganism that proceeds to kill humans with ease. The clear message is that space exploration puts our species at risk; better not to explore, just stay home. In his novel Jurassic Park, DNA extraction and genetic experimentation are used to recreate dinosaurs, with predictably chewy results for the humans involved. The message is that it’s better not to tamper with nature, lest you be punished. In Prey, Crichton takes nanotechnology to task, spinning a tale of out-of-control, self-reproducing micro-machines that kill people and threaten to swarm the planet. The message here: again, technological advances lead to disaster. Crichton’s anti-science books spin consistent narratives of science as a danger to humanity, of scientists as irresponsible or blinded by hubris, of research as something to be feared rather than embraced. His works say to the reader: don’t explore, don’t research, don’t trust science or scientists. This is a profoundly anti-scientific message.

But of all Crichton’s books, State of Fear is the most troubling. Although ostensibly a work of fiction, Crichton scatters the book with footnotes and lists real scientific works in an appendix. But, as with the books of Bjorn Lomborg, just because a citation is given does not mean the source is used correctly or even supports the argument. What does Crichton argue? Well, essentially this: 1) climate science is a fraud, and 2) environmentalists will resort to mass murder to promote this fraud.

In the rather implausible plot of this novel, environmental terrorists try to create a tsunami in order to destroy California’s coasts in order to create fear about natural disasters resulting from climate change. Huh? Yep, you read that correctly. The plot really is that convoluted. But what matters is how the narrative of the book provides a platform for Crichton’s didactic dialogues exposing alleged “problems” in climate science. The whole book really just provides an excuse for Crichton to lecture the reader during pauses in the action. It’s a convenient ruse—the reader is in Crichton’s world, with no immediate way to know that it’s a very selective reading of the science, and the dramatic narrative brings the reader along in a way that, say, studying an IPCC report cover-to-cover might not.  

It’s really a shame that Crichton, who was trained as a medical doctor, did not write thrillers about how medical science has improved life and reduced suffering. When Crichton said, “I am not so pleased with the impact of science,” it’s hard to understand what he’s referring to. Vaccines? Antibiotics? Birth control? Anesthesia? He’s not pleased with how these medical advances have improved the quality and length of life for so many people? Think of the thrillers involving real science—Jenner or Salk struggling to create their vaccines, NASA inventing spaceships from scratch on a tight deadline—that Crichton could have written instead of his paranoid, fact-free attacks on science.

As we have seen, the narrative form can be used with ill-intent by creationists and climate denialists. But that should not dissuade those on the side of science from using storytelling as a way to bring the wonders of science to the larger public; in fact, we need to learn and embrace how to do this well. In Houston, We Have a Narrative, Randy Olson says, “Narrative pervades all aspects of human culture.” But for too long, scientists have not taken this into account when they try to tell the story of what they do. That should change.

Short Bio

Steve Newton is a former Programs and Policy Director at NCSE.