Randy Olson has advice for Refuge System scientists and others trying to sway public thinking on conservation, climate science or evolution: Lighten up. To engage broad audiences, he says, appeal to the heart or gut, and add a few yuks. Thats heresy, coming from a fellow scientistOlson holds a Harvard PhD in marine biology and was a tenured professor at the University of New Hampshire. But he means to provoke. And hes succeeding.
Sure, sealevel rise and shrinking habitat threaten wildlife. Thats no joke. But as a Hollywoodbased filmmaker, Olson, 56, sees general audiences tune out when scientists deliver the message. The problem, he says, is that scientists love of complexity and preference for data over storytelling turns many off.
Without humor and emotion, you wont reach the public, says Olson, whose 2009 book, Dont Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style, expands on this theme. According to the book, mass communicators have two goals: arouse and fulfill. Ignore the first, and youll fail in the second. To prevent such failure, Olson reimagines the human body as having four main organs: the head (scientists favorite), the heart (seat of emotions), the gut (region of instinct and humor) and the groin (sex appeal). The lower you can move a message, he says, the more you arouse an audience.
Olson took his message to the National Conservation Training Center last summer, where he spoke to 26 Service employees and others in the Resource Management Implications for Global Climate Change course. He showed Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy, a film that skewers scientists as clueless nerds. And he debated science communication strategies with George Mason University environmental policy doctoral student Karen Akerlof, leaving her to defend traditional science messaging.
In a 60minute video interview with Service historian Mark Madison, Olson endorsed comic exaggeration to make serious points. He cited, as an example, his 2005 public service announcement in support of wider California fishing restrictions. In it, a fisherman brags about his catch, then holds up a string of minnows. Without controls on overfishing, the spot concludes, the scene could become reality.
The same tactic worked for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Olson told Madison. The agencys standard disaster preparedness message drew little notice, he said, until folks recast it last spring as a wiggy zombie preparedness campaign. Public response was so great it crashed CDC servers. Olson called the campaign a massive success.
At NCTC, students tried the approach in drafting PSA pitches. Refuge System climate change coordinator John Schmerfeld and his team envisioned an invasive species explosion. We had a housewife working in the yard, he says. Shes got kudzu and nutria bouncing through her flowerbed. She runs in the house, turns on the water, and zebra mussels come out of the faucet. The tag line: Invasive species are thriving because of climate changes. Learn more (from the Service).
Olsons film Sizzle produced mixed reactions at NCTC. Southeast Region hydrologist John Faustini called it contrived. But he endorsed Olsons broader message, saying, we need to work on reaching out to audiences we dont traditionally reach.
Eva Kristofik, refuge manager at the North Mississippi Refuges Complex, liked the film. Humor helps her connect with refuge visitors, too, she said. If they laugh, good, she said, as long as theyre getting the message. If you just preach at people, you alienate them.
Schmerfeld took Olsons point: [His] message is that scientists need to talk more from the heart and the gut than the head. Thats a difficult message for scientists to swallow, especially government scientists. But thats how our society works.
Susan Morse is a writereditor in the Refuge System Branch of Communications. To learn more about Randy Olsons science communication philosophy, go to http://thebenshi.com.