Randy Olson's Plea for Science Arousal

By Keith Kloor
Apr 14, 2011 8:55 PMNov 20, 2019 4:03 AM


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I never got around to writing about this recent essay from recovering scientist-turned filmmaker Randy Olson, so I'm glad that Andy Revkin has taken it up at Dot Earth. Do watch the 10-minute Skype video interview that Revkin also posts, where Olson says:

The problem in the environmental and science worlds as far as I can see, when it comes to communication, almost 100 percent of the support goes to conservative approaches. There is virtually no genuine innovation and experimentation taking place and that's the problem, is that genuine innovation involves risk taking.

This is partly because risk takers such as Olson get punished:

As you step out of the mainstream you just get completely ostracized and alienated...I've had 20 years in the science world just not supporting anything I do. There is no support for anything that steps out of the mainstream.

Greens looking to widen their audience might want to pay heed to this nugget from Olson, as well.

The environmental movement has created a very unlikable voice for this environmental message overall...it has not been crafted into the proper voice that is popular in broader society. It's popular within the little clubs and things like that that work on this stuff, but not when you get out into the broader demographics.

Revkin then asks him:

The environmental movement through the 20th century was all built around two phrases that I've said we have to move past: those are woe is me and shame on you. If you wanted to experiment with an alternative phrase for the environmental movement, for green groups, any ideas.

Olson replied that foundations holding the purse strings had to be willing to fund experimental ideas. Their model, he said, should emulate evolutionary biology's natural variation. In his Dot Earth post, Revkin writes:

I agree with Olson, utterly, that there's not enough experimentation, too much fear of failure and also far too much fear and misunderstanding at scientific institutions, from America's universities to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, about the obligation and responsibility to engage the public in a sustained way. As I've put it here and elsewhere many times, it's particularly important as traditional science journalism becomes a shrinking wedge of a growing pie of communication portals. I encourage you to watch the video and/or read Olson's provocative essay. You won't agree with all of what he says. I don't, and in fact I think that research revealing the human habit of embracing or ignoring information based on predispositions and emotion, not the information, is vitally important to convey (and needs to be conveyed more creatively, too!).

I second that. I'll just add that I think the climate and environmental blogosphere could be playing a much bigger role in experimental communication approaches. But there's too much of an echo chamber--especially in the climate blogopshere-- and anyone who steps even a teensy out of line risks getting worked over by the climate capo and his band of loyalists.

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