Randy Olson is a Harvard (’84) trained marine biologist with field experience on the Great Barrier Reef, in the Antarctic, the US Virgin Islands, and elsewhere. He even spent a little time with Jacques Cousteau.
But an extensive career in marine biology was not to be.
Randy started to change careers around 1990, with the production of a number of short films including “Barnacles Tell No LIes” (which I’ve placed at the bottom of this post for your enjoyment). In 1994 he literally jumped ship. walking away from a tenured professorship in New Hampshire, and went to USC to study film. With various collaborators, Olson made a series of award winning films primarily about the oceans and their plight.
In 2006, Olson directed Flock of Dodos: the Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus (currently showing on Showtime and available on DVD). Dodos is the first major production of any kind … in film and in print … to take a truly even look at the personalities and politics of the Intelligent Design movement in relation to Evolutionary Biology. While there was never a doubt throughout this film that Evolutionary Biology is the real deal (and Intelligent Design is nothing more than renamed creationism) the fact that the movie poked fun at individuals on both sides won Olson both new friends and strange looks (and the occasional cold shoulder) from old allies.
After Dodo’s tour around the country, I started to get to know Randy as we have discussed the problem of communicating science to the general public in new and more effective ways. Some of you will know Randy as a ‘member of the framing camp’ … and in that case you may think of me as one of the ‘anti framers.’ The former makes sense because of Randy’s work with with science communication, and the latter makes sense because of my extensive ranting about framing on my old blog and here on scienceblogs.com
But in truth, Randy Olson and I have yet to disagree significantly about anything in the area of communicating science. I’ve come to respect his approach, his attitude, and his talent a great deal. So, it was a pleasure for me to watch an early version of his soon to be released mockumentary film, Sizzle, and to interview him about that movie….
Olson: I’m definitely the dodo. Long ago there was a brilliant comedy group called Firesign Theater who made an album titled, “We’re All Bozos on this Bus.” I think I would update that with “we’re all dodos in this world.” The age of polymaths is over, there are no true know-it-alls, so we should all begin by accepting we’re less than perfect communicators, then see how we can improve.
Looking at myself in Sizzle is fairly shocking. I’m a dork, and it’s not acting. I’ve spent fourteen years living in Hollywood, trying my best to be hip and cool, and after all that, I’m still the same scientist I was back at the start. Which comes out in the scene when my crew members are making fun of how uptight I am. That wasn’t staged. It’s really what they thought. And it was incredibly funny to see that scene, a month after our trip to D.C. since I wasn’t in the room as they were filming it.
Laden: Is Sizzle an indictment, or suggestion, that documentary films should be made differently?
Olson: It’s somewhat of a plea for better storytelling and more innovation in science documentaries. In Dodos I pulled together a poker game expecting a quiet night of gentlemanly discussion. What I got was a very entertaining spat between two academics which became the most powerful element of the film. It was basically a slice of reality television – like an episode of “Big Brother.” I suddenly saw, first hand, the potential power of reality programming. Then I saw “Borat,” which was a brilliant synthesis of reality and narrative structure. Which led me to the simple idea of, “what if you had a crewman who disagreed with the almighty director on the subject matter?”
In terms of storytelling, the movie offers up a highly contrived somewhat silly story, but we’ve already seen in our test screenings, it makes the material more accessible to audiences that have no interest in the subject matter. That’s what storytelling can do for you.
Laden: Why is this film funny? I mean, why did you make it a comedy? Isn’t global warming serious business?
Olson: Malcolm X made popular the phrase, “by any means necessary.” My feeling is that global warming and Hurricane Katrina are two issues that are so important they need to continue to be examined broadly by any means that can possibly work. Al Gore did a great job of tossing global warming in front of the American public, and Spike Lee did a heroic job of documenting the immediate aftermath of Katrina. But those sorts of efforts should be followed by an army of other communicators, exploring other ways to reach different demographics. Sizzle is a somewhat experimental film in that regard. It is intentionally not like either of those two films simply because they have already done a good job with that approach. Furthermore, when all else fails in reaching people on a subject, a little bit of humor (if it works) is always a viable option. The only question is whether it works (yeeks).
Laden: There are a lot of aspects of climate change that you do not cover. You ignore carbon sinks. You do not discuss the Atlantic Conveyor and the role of ocean currents in general. There is not a single mention of Hadley Cells or the Inter Tropical Convergence Zone. What’s up with that?
Olson: To paraphrase James Carville’s statement, “it’s the communication, stupid.” These attacks on science, whether it’s evolution, global warming, or modern medicine, are not about science. They are about communication dynamics. We have people who know how to point to entire textbooks of science, say that everything in the book is wrong, and much of the public has a hard time disagreeing. In my interview with Mark Morano (spokesman for Senator James Inhofe), who is an incredibly impressive and aggressive spokesman for the skeptics, he takes off on a rant about how every pessimistic environmental prediction of the seventies turned out to be wrong. But he includes the oceans in his examples, and when I stop him to say, “Wait a minute, the oceans aren’t doing very well,” he answers, “well, at least they’re not dead.” These are communications dynamics we’re talking about — when folks know how to pitch their story forcefully and quickly enough that it’s hard to argue with what they say, and they end up being more convincing than their opponent.
There was a debate in New York City last year where the global warming skeptics trotted out six foot ten Hollywood mega-player Michael Crichton who cleaned the floor with the opposition. One of the scientists on the opposing team told me it simply wasn’t a fair fight – the amount of star power that guy brought into the room overwhelmed any set of data that could be presented. This is what communication is about – substance and style – BOTH are important.
Laden: Was there ever a point in time, while making this film, that you considered getting a celebrity? Is the search by the film’s producers for a ‘star’ a little bit of a reflection of reality?
Olson: We tried to interview Ann Coulter (too busy), Ifeanyi and Alex thought they could get Snoop to do a cameo (too stoned), we asked Richard Simmons (who is from New Orleans) to make an appearance at the end (no reply), and I spent a couple months trading a fascinating series of emails with Michael Crichton, but in the end he passed.
But so what. It doesn’t bother me. I’m not sure any celebrity would want to be in a movie that makes fun of celebrities as we do. And more wonderfully, in an example of life imitating our art, one festival didn’t even look at the movie, but said they would screen it at their festival IF … we could provide a major celebrity to introduce it. I just love that tidbit. Celebrity dynamics are so much fun.
Laden: Did the experts you were interviewing know that your crew members were going to do what they did during the interviews? Were the interviewees in on it, or did you just surprise them Candid Camera style?
Olson: No comment.
Laden: How close is Sizzle’s film maker character, whom I have come to think of as “Hapless Randy,” to the real Randy Olson? Or shouldn’t you say?
Plenty of comment. I was very hapless nearly twenty years ago when I first started making trips to Hollywood and pitching ideas. The motto of the U.S.C. Cinema School is, “Reality Ends Here.” As a scientist, it’s very difficult to make peace with that slogan. For scientists, reality is the be all and end all. But for storytelling, which is the essence of good filmmaking, it’s like a frivolous add-on. When I headed off to film school at U.S.C. I thought everyone would be fascinated to hear my real world stories from my career as a marine biologist. But after a while, you come to realize that if your stories don’t include celebrities or space aliens or miracles … they’re kind of dwarfed by the stuff that Hollywood people work with every day. Which doesn’t mean it’s impossible to communicate it, it only means it’s very challenging. Which makes it that much more interesting.
Olson: I’ve already told Marc Morano he needs to be thankful I didn’t use everything from our interview. We have a two-shot of him lecturing me with his finger wagging right in front of my face. He caught himself in the middle of it and said, “Pleeease don’t use that.” We didn’t, but it’s one of several things that will probably make up another, “Pulled Punches” reel as I did for Dodos
Laden: OK, I have three final questions for you. Yes or no answer, please. 1) Do you think the earth has warmed over the last 100 years? Do you think humans have contributed significantly to that warming? and 3) do you think there is anything humans can do about it?
Olson: Not fair. Where’s Marion when I need him.
But seriously, of course my answer is yes to all three. The earth has warmed, and I think one of the most important elements in Sizzle is the graphic that summarizes the views of the six skeptics which shows very clearly how all-over-the-place they are when it comes to these simple questions. (the answer is of course yes to all three for the global warming folks)
And yes, of course humans have contributed significantly to the warming. As to whether humans can do anything about it, for me personally, the single most distressing thing I’ve read on the subject was Tom Friedman’s excellent editorial in the NY Times about visiting Dalian (China) and Doha (Qatar). This one sentence from him sort of says it all for the time being, “Hey, I’m really glad you switched to long-lasting compact fluorescent light bulbs in your house. But the growth in Doha and Dalian ate all your energy savings for breakfast.”
Laden: OK, well, that’s all I’ve got. Thanks for the interview, Randy!
Olson: Right, no problem, any time.
Laden: Good. Cheers, see you around.
Olson: OK, bye.
Olson: Later, dude.
Randy Olson’s Barnacle Sex Music Video: