Does Science Need Hollywood?

By David KordahlDecember 24, 2015

Houston, We Have a Narrative by Randy Olson

CONSIDER MARK WATNEY. For the recent movie adaptation of The Martian, actor Matt Damon lends Watney some of his charm, but in the Andy Weir novel on which the movie is based, our botanist, astronaut, and interplanetary castaway seems unbelievably flat. Granted, he’s been left for dead on Mars, so maybe his non-emotive pragmatism is a side effect of shock. But I don’t think so. I think we’re asked to believe that Watney is mainly occupied by thoughts like these:

Each hydrazine tank holds a little over 50 liters, which would be enough to make 100 liters of water. I’m limited by my oxygen production, but I’m all excited now, so I’m willing to use half my reserves. Long story short, I’ll stop when the tank is half-empty, and I’ll have 50 liters of water at the end!

End log entry. I work in science, but I only made it through about 20 pages before I realized, “I can wait for the movie,” and set the book down to wait.

A few weeks ago, I went with a few of my physics friends to see Matt Damon science the shit out of his fuel reserves. Of course, it’s more interesting to watch procedures than to read about them, so I enjoyed myself and remained occupied, during the runtime, with important questions like, Did Damon have a body double?

Only afterward did the questions become more serious. I’m at peace with pristinely rational nonfiction — I own plenty of books on space flight — but in fiction I expect at least a hint of the demon-haunted aspects of everyday life. On the drive home, I ranted to Holly, my wife, about the film’s lack of any introspection. “Look at that guy,” I said. “He’s just a smart space bureaucrat. I want Captain Ahab! Watney’s just boring — no real passions, so no real problems.”

“Maybe,” said Holly, pausing to find a polite way to disagree. “But Watney might actually find his whale. And live through it.”

“Sure,” I moped. “He’d use sonar. While joking about disco.”

At home, I clicked around to read a few author interviews with Andy Weir. He stayed cheerfully on message. He admitted that Watney was an authorial stand-in, and that science had come first, story second. One write-up (depressingly titled “The Secret of ‘The Martian’ Success? Scientific Peer Review”), neatly summarized how the story had coalesced. “I was sitting around thinking about how to do a human mission to Mars,” Weir said, “not for a story but just for the heck of it. I started thinking about how I would do it and all the things that could go wrong, and I realized it would make a great story. So I made up a protagonist and subjected him to all of it.”

Is this the fate of literature? My own biases allow me to appreciate this type of exercise in movies (highly recommended: The Andromeda Strain, Contagion, Europa Report), but not really in books. Why? Naturally, I could whip up another rant, but let me defer to Randy Olson, whose new book, Houston, We Have a Narrative: Why Science Needs Story, hazards an explanation.

Briefly: I’m an egghead in bad need of retraining.

In Olson’s terms, I’m “story-phobic,” not because I dislike stories, but because I like stories that are “of limited practicality for society.” Olson argues that people, in general, respond to a specific class of stories, stories with a single protagonist whose problems are clearly defined. No need to get bogged down with interiority or symbolism. People tend to go for Watney, not Ahab.

So where does that leave me? Clearly I need retraining — but not in science. If anything, I’m in too deep there already. What I need, instead, is a basic workshop on narrative dynamics.


Now, a sympathetic reader might insist that I’ve misrepresented Olson in this intro. After all, by realizing that too many details (details, say, about water production from hydrazine) might make a story boring, I’ve apparently internalized one of his core principles of narrative dynamics already — that a story should be as simple as possible, but no simpler. Fine. Maybe I’m not quite the “typical scientist” of Olson’s description, who thrives on endless detail. But since Olson also counts the academic humanities and complexity itself among his targets, I think I’m pretty safe in lumping myself in as a part of the problem nonetheless.

So listen up, fellow eggheads. Enough already with theory and discourse. It’s time to get down to business. Or, in Olson’s words: “The time has come to set the [academic] prejudices aside — the problems are now far more important than worrying about where the solutions come from.”

Randy Olson presents himself as a sort of converse Andy Weir. While Weir pleasantly explains that Hollywood could sure use some science, Olson insists that science needs Hollywood. And how does Olson know? Well, he was once a scientist himself, a marine biologist, and the story of how he traveled to Hollywood and left behind a tenured academic position (thematic emphasis in original) is retold many times before the book is finished. In fact, at one point Olson renames himself Randysseus (like Odysseus — get it? get it?) to offer his story up as a prototypical version of the hero’s journey … but that’s not until page 25.

Just wait. Before this, Olson lays out a vision of two major problems his system is out to fix. Both are explained so obnoxiously that I’m sorry to have to concede they’re both probably real.

He leads with the obnoxious. First comes a story about how difficult it has been for him to convince scientists that they need his help in giving talks that are “more than ‘fine.’” Then he recounts a talk he gave to the American Society of Agronomy during which no one (save for one outlier who had written a book on the subject) could identify the meaning of IMRAD, Olson’s acronym for the format of a scientific paper (Introduction, Methods, Results, And Discussion).

There’s a constant salesmanship to these stories that I found exhausting. After all, why should a senior scientist trust Olson to improve his (already honed) stump speech? And why the hell would we happen to know his pet acronym for the scientific method?

But Olson mines these anecdotes for a larger truth. He’s convinced that the science world suffers from a condition he diagnoses as “narrative deficiency,” and that “not enough comprehension of narrative and how it works” is at the root of two of science’s biggest problems.

The first of these problems is that research publications tend to favor positive results (i.e., results that demonstrate something new, rather than results that merely support prior research), and that these positive results tend to be exaggerated. And why is this a result of narrative deficiency? Olson claims this happens because scientists aren’t on the lookout for narrative, so when their (all too) human brains latch onto a good story, their rationality is easily overwhelmed. But a secondary problem compounds this: Scientists’ lack of “narrative intuition” makes them, by and large, pretty boring; and so, even when they have important things to say, no one listens.

This sounds dire. Is there anything we boring scientists can do?

“I’m recommending the entire science world become more like Trey Parker,” Olson writes. Yes, Trey Parker — cocreator of South Park. “How in the world can I be saying this? Have my years of living and working in Hollywood made me into one of the lunatics in the asylum?”

My inner Ahab tells me Olson needs all the lunacy he can get. Houston’s next 200 pages are cobbled together from the usual screenwriting books and present a streamlined synthesis that’s as certain to irritate humanists as it is, alas, to help most scientists who read it.


The Trey Parker thing provides the book’s earliest example of its sour admixture — a nugget of helpful advice surrounded by page after page of overstated bluster. Parker’s advice is simple: if you’re telling a story where one thing happens, and another thing, and another, and another, listeners will be more engaged if you change some of those ands to buts or therefores. Most of us appreciate stories, in other words, with causal connections between one event and the next.

Of course, the extent to which this advice applies depends on your purpose. For South Park, it works; for Samuel Beckett, maybe not. But Olson doesn’t allow for such distinctions. Olson goes on for pages about how his ABT (And But Therefore) template is “extraordinarily profound” and can “transform the entire world of science,” how ABT is the “DNA of story,” the ultimate background to everyone from Aristotle to Joseph Campbell.

Unfortunately, whenever Olson ventures into intellectual history, he undermines his own credibility, from misattributed quotes (“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” is given to Leonardo da Vinci) to misrepresented philosophers (“Georg Hegel,” for Olson, is a simple cheerleader for the three-act structure). Unfortunately, I should stress, because if you can skip past the Bad Randy who dismisses the humanities with a few gestures toward C.P. Snow and Alan Sokol, past the Randy who criticizes universities for their “willingness to nurture the weak and feeble” while praising Hollywood for encouraging rapid evolution in an “intense selective regime” — well, if you can overlook all of this, there are about 150 good pages at the end.

To be clear, I don’t recommend the latter parts on science communication for being especially fun to read. But if you’re already this far into a longish book review, chances are that your normal sources for advice (Paris Review interviews? Nobel Lectures?) won’t overlap too heavily with Olson. Houston isn’t about finding your voice or inventing a form. It has more in common with Coding for Dummies than On Writing or The Elements of Style. In Olson’s vision, Hollywood has cracked how stories work, and science should simply adopt their best practices.

Which I obviously find repellant. But that doesn’t necessarily invalidate the methods it describes.

By the time Olson uses his “tips” to analyze specific paper abstracts, I grudgingly had to concede that his Watney-esque pragmatism might pay off. The Olson mode of storytelling is a sort of focused salesmanship, and the main virtue of his method is that it forces scientists to figure out exactly what they’re trying to sell. He advises scientists to use his WSP Model (Word Sentence Paragraph — what else?) first to find what they see as the core of their subject (Word), then to describe their research contribution as an elevator pitch (Sentence), and finally to craft their fleshed-out prospectus into some sort of hero’s journey (Paragraph).

Granted, none of this will be news to anyone who’s already read Syd Field or Robert McKee, but I’ve attended enough boring talks and read enough confusing papers to acknowledge that such an approach might help. And as far as any practical advice goes, isn’t that the point?

Still, Olson is smart enough to acknowledge that not every story fits neatly into the framework of a Hollywood blockbuster. This leads him to the book’s most intriguing tension.


One page before the final chapter, Olson surprised me. Most of the autobiographical material, up to that point, had focused on the lessons he learned at Harvard from E.O. Wilson and Stephen Jay Gould, or about the Hollywood trade secrets he took from his USC instructors and a memorably shrill acting coach. But here, after all the discussions about story templates and narrative spectra, he returns to the role of telling stories in the development of narrative intuition, and to his days as an undergrad at the University of Kansas — specifically, as regards Malcolm Gladwell’s contested claim that it takes 10,000 hours to master an arena of human enterprise. “When I first read Gladwell’s theorizing about the 10,000 hours,” Olson comments, “I thought of the greatest storytellers I have ever known, my college buddies at the University of Kansas.”

His drinking buddies were good storytellers. Because they told a lot of stories.

This insight didn’t exactly unjoin my skull plates, but the discovery that Olson was a fellow KU alum inspired a warm rush of fellow-feeling. It also forced me to recall one of the most instructive lessons on public science I learned as a young Jayhawk — a lesson, I should emphasize, that’s nearly the same as the one Olson arrives at in his last pages.

Here’s my anecdote. An emeritus professor from the chemistry department, one of the last holdouts against (among other things) fluoridated water, invited an employee from the US Geological Survey across campus to give a public lecture about the correlation between climate fluctuations and sunspots. Of course, this was enough to make most scientists stiffen: climate models projecting anthropogenic warming already took sunspot fluctuations into account. And so, being callow, young, and excited by the possibility of a shitshow, I arrived at the lecture early.

I sat near the back of the hall and sized people up as they entered. Was it possible to sort the crazies from the “skeptics” from the bulldogs who were here to defend their turf? The audience seemed unassuming and calm — all the droolers and mutterers and foamers-at-the-mouth were conspicuously absent. The lecturer himself had the aspect of a friendly handyman.

Then a physicist I knew waddled to the front, took a prominent seat, and crossed his arms.

The talk began. But as the invited lecturer trundled through his talking points (Why are scientists ignoring the sun? Shouldn’t we maybe just be allowed to ask?), I watched the physicist mime his incredulity at every new assertion, chuckling, shaking his head — the same man who had fought to keep evolution in Kansas school curriculum at the turn of the new century, now reignited.

You sort of had to admire this physicist, unwilling as he was to accept a man he saw, no doubt, as an Enemy of the Truth. When the cranky emeritus got up to direct the post-lecture Q&A, the physicist was the first to raise his hand. “What qualifications do you have to study climate?” he asked. The lecturer replied that he had an MS in physics from this very university. “Who was your advisor?” The lecturer replied warmly with a name and some accompanying praise, but the physicist continued on, pressing the issue, questioning the lecturer’s qualifications on all counts.

Of course, it didn’t take long for the audience to assign a score. “Hateful Physicist vs. Humble Seeker: 0-1.” Why not just let the guy do his research, huh? When the lecturer finally said, “I’m happy to talk to you about my education, but I don’t see what that has to do with what I’m here to discuss tonight,” the crowd responded with a light applause. (Update: 0-2.)

No one reading this is probably surprised by that exchange. Modern humans prefer a charming liar to a truthful asshole. Which severely complicates the modern scientist’s role.

Randy Olson has noticed this, too. But he believes that there’s a better way.


Once his screenwriting book has been replaced, it’s possible that Robert McKee will be best remembered for the portrayal of his seminar in Adaptation. As anyone who’s seen that film will remember, when Charlie Kaufman consults Robert McKee for advice on his script, a story in which, as in the real world, “nothing much happens,” McKee goes off on him. “Nothing happens in the world? Are you out of your fucking mind?” After a dramatic list of all the things that could happen, McKee bellows, “If you can’t find that stuff in life, then you, my friend, don’t know crap about life! And why the fuck are you wasting my two precious hours with your movie?”

As a McKee devotee, Olson uses most of his book to espouse these same principles: drama, simplicity, directness. But even McKee acknowledges that all good films don’t follow this plan. The ones that do, with an external threat, causal storyline, and closed ending (think: Seven Samurai), he labels archplot. Movies that instead favor internal conflict, with passive characters and/or nonlinear stories (think: Wild Strawberries), he labels miniplot. And the films with avant-garde ambitions (think: Un Chien Andalou, or any Monty Python comedy), he labels antiplot.

The key difficulties in situations like that of the lecturer and the physicist, in Olson’s view, are intimately related to our natural responses to these different types of plots. Olson claims that we’re wired to react most strongly to archplot narratives, where an underdog protagonist triumphs over a powerful antagonist. But sometimes science doesn’t work that way.

When the physicist sat in the front of the auditorium, he made a narrative error. He activated these archplot archetypes, casting himself as the antagonist while conferring unearned sympathy on the guest lecturer. Meanwhile, Olson describes climate change as “pure miniplot — a narrative headed in an unknown direction.” Temperatures rise and fall; weather and climate are easily confused. Furthermore, heroic action doesn’t guarantee heroic results (Olson is unsparing toward the overstatements of An Inconvenient Truth), and we’re stuck with an open-ended dread.

Olson suggests that scientists form “story circles” to practice captivating audiences while they discuss subjects that are, um, less obviously interesting than others. “Addressing the challenges of science and story must begin with the acceptance that there is nothing intrinsically good or evil with the terms story, storytelling and narrative. Nothing. They are as value-free as E = mc2.”

Translation: When it comes to story, we should all be Mark Watney.

But surely these terms aren’t so value-free as Olson pretends. Modes of representation mean something, don’t they? When Olson recommends we adopt Hollywood, what’s the subtext?

In “Writing about Writing about Writing,” essayist Tom Bissell noted, “Many of the best books about writing are only incidentally about writing. Instead they are about how to live.” Houston, We Have a Narrative isn’t about writing at all, but I think it does, with its specific injunctions on how best to communicate, present a view of how to live.

This is not speculation. On page 228, there’s a cartoon of the “perfect scientist,” a silhouetted muscleman standing beside a light-to-dark spectrum, with “Informational,” “Isolated,” “Disciplined,” on one side, “Emotional,” “Listening,” “Sloppy,” on the other. Olson’s perfect scientist is a balanced person, strong all the way across the spectrum. Goodbye, antisocial lab dwellers and feeble fact monsters. Hello, thought leaders, TED-talkers all. Enough of the old foolish pride. It was naive to suspect that if facts were simply stated, they would be believed. The facts must be told. They must be sold. We scientists must become their salesmen.

This case is easy to understand. It makes sense.

It also depresses the hell out of me. For anyone who’s imbibed, with mother’s milk, an ideal of the scientist as a rogue badass, beholden to nothing but the truth, it’s dispiriting to imagine modern scientists in story circles, trying to spitball ways for ideas to stick. That — I used to think — was the province of focus groups and marketing experts. Now I’m not so sure. Maybe we can’t pretend that nothing happens after all. The whale took Ahab. History marches on.


David Kordahl lives in Mesa, Arizona, where he teaches science.

LARB Contributor

David Kordahl is a graduate student in physics at Arizona State University.


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