One of the toughest things about science and nature writing in 2012 is staying positive while you attempt to stay relevant. It is so easy to fall into the trap of beating your audience over the head with doomsday predictions and models of a dying world that few people are able to escape. George Bernard Shaw probably said it best “If you’re going to tell people the truth, you had better make them laugh; otherwise they’ll kill you.”
No one wants to spend precious time and energy reading about how their favourite animal is doomed to extinction or their childhood home will be underwater in 100 years. That is why today, in an age where we have moved from exciting discoveries to depressing models, it is more important than ever to be engaging and funny and (dare I even say it) optimistic.
Yesterday I was lucky enough to attend a lecture by one of the world’s great science communicators, author and film maker Randy Olson. His lecture was about what, on the face of it, could be a pretty depressing topic: the notion that scientists are out of touch with the general public to the point where people don’t want to listen. Only, he didn’t stand at the podium and berate his audience (a room full of scientists and grad students) with the do’s and don’ts of public communication. He kept us engaged with dynamic graphics, good storytelling, and, most importantly, humour.
I left the lecture hall feeling rejuvenated and full of hope for the future of science in the public sphere. If people like Dr. Olson are around to engage and educate both scientists and the public about the way things should be, we are well on our way to positive change. That hope was dashed today when I went to one of my classes. The professor, one of my all-time favourite teachers and an all-around great lady, talked to us about carbon in the atmosphere. As you might guess, this is a topic that can cause even the keenest of listeners to gloss over the details and leave the room in a melancholic stupor. And that’s exactly what happened.
Admittedly my teacher had a tough topic. It’s hard to talk about the state of the atmosphere without sounding depressing, but it’s not impossible. If you change your emphasis from what we have done to what we have the potential to fix, things get a lot brighter. Unfortunately, it seems like there is a long way to go before scientists embrace what so many of them claim to know: Jon Stewart is a lot more effective than Al Gore.