The Author Who Thinks ‘South Park’ Can Help Save Science

My brother’s brief tenure as a math doctoral student at the University of Chicago ended shortly after he attended a gathering where one of his colleagues bragged that he had never read a novel. To my brother’s dismay, everyone else in the room nodded in agreement and approval. My brother had already been questioning his decision to devote his life to math. That exchange proved to be fatal. Within weeks, he had dropped out of the program and abandoned the field.

I thought about my brother this week while reading Houston, We Have a Narrative: Why Science Needs Story, a new book by Randy Olson that makes the argument that the problem with science today is that scientists don’t understand narrative. Olson is very familiar with stories like my brother’s. People in the sciences, he says, “have developed this whole stigma and phobia about the word story. And it’s a huge problem.”

In Olson’s view, this storyphobia, as he puts it, is more than just an off-putting quirk. It’s part of the reason why, despite overwhelming scientific consensus, the pubic is still debating issues like global warming, evolution and vaccination policy.

“Telling a simple story can be frustrating, but it may be the single most important challenge for all scientists,” Olson writes. “The tendency of scientists to present endless piles of facts, unable to find the singular narrative on which everyone can focus, has been a reason many important science stories, including that of global warming, fail to resonate with the public.”

Any nonscientist who has slogged through a scientific paper can understand what Olson is talking about. Even some scientists themselves know this is a problem. Earlier this month, nature published a linguistics analysis of the climate summary papers of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The verdict? The IPCC’s reports —> Read More