THE POWER OF AFFIRMATION. Friday’s session of our ABT Framework course (this round with National Park Service) featuring veteran improv actors Brian Palermo and Stephanie Courtney (“Flo” of Progressive Insurance).
YES, AND …
I’ve been working with the legendary Groundlings Improv Comedy Theater for nearly two decades. In 2002 I formed a partnership with one of their most talented comic actors, Jeremy Rowley as part of my Shifting Baselines Ocean Media Project (Jeremy’s enormously popular and hilarious Dating Video shows a bit of his comic brilliance).
On Friday I had Brian and Stephanie Courtney (whom I’ve known since 2003, before she was “Flo” of Progressive Insurance, when she won our Shifting Baselines Stand Up Comedy Contest) as guests in our ABT Framework course. The session was so energy-packed and fun that we’ve decided to share it with everyone (above).
NOT WINNING? Marc Morano starts off making you think maybe he’s changed, but eventually hits full “Gish Gallop” climate contrarian speed. What is perhaps most fascinating in this 13.5 minute interview I did with him last week is his answer to my question of, “Are you winning?”
SOME THINGS NEVER CHANGE, MUCH
What’s different about Marc Morano? In 2007 when I first interviewed him for my movie, “Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy,” he only had a handful of appearances in major media under his belt.
Now? When I asked him how many times he’s been on Fox News (in the video above), I expected him to say a couple dozen. Look at his answer — hundreds. He’s truly “a regular” there.
Who, among the climate movement, can be called “a regular” on any television network? Being “a regular” on a TV channel is media power, pure and simple.
Of course, media-obsessed Bill Nye ignored this warning. He was on the board of the Union of Concerned Scientists at the time. My friends there tried to talk to him about this but they told me, “He’s just gonna do what he’s gonna do when it comes to media exposure — he can’t get enough.” In 2012 he debated Morano on CNN with Piers Morgan as host. It wasn’t good.
INTERVIEWING MARC MORANO FOR OUR ABT FRAMEWORK COURSE
The course is 10 one hour sessions. I bring in a series of “likely suspects” as guests in the second half (scientists, filmmakers, actors, political strategists, business consultants, journalists, etc.). But this time decided to spice things up a bit by bringing in an inconvenient guest.
The powers that be got a little nervous at the possibility of a scene. The sessions include a chat log where the participants can type in comments and questions live. We all know the climate issue can get heated, so I opted to avoid potential drama by doing only a recorded interview which was 30 minutes. I cut down the interview to the 13.5 minute clip above which we showed to the course then discussed in depth.
MARC MORANO, THICK-SKINNED VETERAN
When I made my movie, “Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy,” I ended up trading emails with legendary techno-thriller author-turned-climate “skeptic” (the term of choice at the time), Michael Crichton. He warned me in his first email that what I had experienced for criticism and trolling for my movie “Flock of Dodos,” about the attacks on evolution science, would pale in comparison to doing a film on climate.
He was pretty much right. Lots of scientists and environmentalists said rotten things to me because I gave “screen time” to climate skeptics (though by 6 years later when Robbie Kenner did the same thing with “Merchants of Doubt” where I guided him to Morano, the critics had gone silent — btw, wanna see one interesting detail — look at the Wikipedia page for this film — the two photos are of Oreskes and Singer with Morano getting only a trivial mention as one of the cast — then look at the trailer for the movie — it opens with, has quotes throughout, and ends with one guy — Marc Morano — what does that tell you?).
Some of my critics suggested I was somehow giving climate skeptics a big break. I wasn’t — my film never went much beyond the science world, and having accomplished all the goals I had (made back the money I spent on it, did over 100 public screenings at everywhere from NASA to the Smithsonian, had huge fun, and verified how utterly, utterly, utterly humorless so many environmentalists can be — the number of times my crew in Hollywood sat in our office shaking our heads at angry emails was tragic) I opted to never release it.
But yes, climate is an ugly, intensely polarized issue, that is not helped by the poor communication style of so much of the climate action crowd (exemplified in recent years by their decision to label their opponents as “deniers” in an effort to associate them with Holocaust deniers). Over the years, they have chosen to spew hatred from a distance while failing to ever engage in any sort of sophisticated analysis or experimentation when it comes to communication.
And they wonder why they fail.
MAYBE HE’S AT LEAST SLOWING DOWN
If you watch the video, you’ll see by the end I fall into pretty much of a “here we go again,” routine with him on each issue. I’ve heard it all before. His science on the ocean acidification issue is wrong (there are not as many winners as losers for this issue). His science on the California wild fires is wrong (there’s not much of a climate signal for the fires, but the experts agree there’s at least some). His science on coral bleaching is WAY wrong — trust me on this, I used to be a coral reef scientist, he has zero legs to stand on for this one.
The bottom line is that there is no point in engaging a climate skeptic on CONTENT. The engagement needs to be about FORM. If this isn’t clear to you, take our ABT Framework course.
The climate crowd never did show one ounce of communications savvy. If there’s one core principle to the legendary text, “The Art of War” which has been the bible for Hollywood players for a generation, it’s “Know your enemy.” I’ve seen no evidence of climate activists attempting to know their enemy.
Marc and I have chuckled for years at the complete absence of his opponents knowing much of anything about him. That’s part of why one of my initial questions to him was how much does he make. From the very start of my first getting to know him I’ve listened to environmentalists tell me with complete certainty that if you “follow the money,” you’ll see he’s making millions off of payments from the oil industry.
No, he’s not.
Anyhow, here’s your one silver lining. I timed his WORDS PER MINUTE rate of speaking for my interview with him from 2007. It was 225 WPM. I did the same thing for part of the last bit of this interview, 13 years later. I was a mere 210 WPM (normal conversation is about 150 max).
Maybe he’s slowing with age. Which might mean that some day, the age old “strategy” of climate activists of “Ignore him and he’ll eventually go away,” might finally happen. Maybe sometime around 2050.
Remember our philosophy of, “the narrative part of the brain is like a muscle that needs to be conditioned over time”? For years we’ve had groups ask how to keep the dynamic of their circle going. Now we have a way.
NARRATIVE IS HARD WORK — YOU NEED WORKING CIRCLES
You’ve got a project, it has a narrative, you need help shaping it, who ya gonna call? Maybe some expensive communications consultant? How about you pull together 3-4 people who have been through either Story Circles Narrative Training or the new ABT Framework Course?
Graduates of either have enough familiarity with the basic tools (the ABT, the Dobzhansky Template, the Logline Maker) to give you substantial help. Furthermore, what you really need is not one self-proclaimed expert, but rather a group of 3-4 “ears” who can listen to your ABT and help you strengthen it.
This is what our new WORKING CIRCLES concept offers. For now it’s intended only for graduates of the training, but eventually we may open it up to let outsiders take a shot as well. We’ll see.
HOW A WORKING CIRCLE WORKS
It’s a one shot deal. Someone with a project, proposal, presentation, pitch, whatever, is the “host.” The host announces a set Date and Time for the WORKING CIRCLE. The announcement goes up on the Google Group page. Graduates of the training sign up. When 3 sign up, it gets the green light. If 4 sign up it’s full.
The group meets for a half hour, only. The discussion begins with the ABT then goes from there. Maybe the host has a major breakthrough, maybe the group wanders off topic into a detailed discussion of baking brownies during the pandemic. Either way, something good comes of it — communication.
We’ve just launched the first 5. There’s another 5 on deck. We’ll see how it goes.
The new ABT Framework Course is awesome, BUT … the one thing it lacks (that Story Circles has) is the group dynamic. This is both a way to add that bit of experience, as well as provide a resource that can be drawn on for a long time to come.
The Bottom Line: Everyone needs to be developing the narrative dynamics of their work in a WORKING CIRCLE, sooner or later.
Welcome to the most fun and rewarding teaching experience of my entire career. We’ve had such a great time with the first round that we’re doing it again. AND … at least 13 of the participants are joining us as members of The Platinum Club (elite status for the mileage they’ve accrued) to do the entire course for a second time. Why? Because they got the message — you don’t master narrative in a one day workshop. Or even one course. It’s a long term commitment, BUT worth it, THEREFORE …
THE ABT FRAMEWORK COURSE IN ACTION. To the right is the Chat Log that allows for continuous comments and questions which we reply to later in the day on the website.
MEMBERSHIP HAS PRIVILEGES
Who knew an online “course” could be so interesting and fun.
Notice I’ve put the word “course” in quotes from the start. It’s not your basic hour online lecture. Half of each session is our ABT Build sessions where each of the 50 participants in the course get their 5 minutes to share their ABT with the others, then have me do our “build” process where we poke and prod it with a series of questions and suggestions.
So how good has the course turned out to be? We’re running it again — immediately — starting next Monday. We’ve already filled 38 of the 50 slots (will probably be full in the next few days), AND, most incredible of all — we’ve got 13 members from the first group — a quarter of the participants — coming back to do the entire course a second time.
I can’t think of any better endorsement than that. Second time is going to be even more fun than the first! If you want in, here’s the link, enroll now before it’s full again.
And here’s the basic outline of the course. It’s the same course as the first time, which you can read about inthe last post.
Want to climb into the ABT sandbox and build some narrative sand castles? We’re about to do it in a big way, for the first time ever, starting next Monday, April 20. This will be an online “course” but I say the word in quotes because it’s going to be so PARTICIPATORY. And fun. Here’s the details. You can ENROLL HERE — it’s open to everyone — and I do mean EVERYONE. It’s cheap and I sincerely promise, it will expand your mind.
TIME TO BUILD SOME NARRATIVE SAND CASTLES!
DESPERATE TIMES CALL FOR DESPERATE MEASURES
We’ve had a wonderful run withStory Circles Narrative Training 1.0 over the past 5 years. We’ve completed roughly 100 circles of 5 (or more occasionally) individuals each, producing over 500 graduates. The proof of how powerful and effective it has been is visible in the results of our Survey of Graduateslast year.
Now it’s time to “advance the narrative.”
It’s also time for a little synthesis. I started assembling what we’ve learned last year with the book, “Narrative Is Everything.” Now we’re all stuck at home, so why not have some fun sharing the knowledge.
DON’T CALL IT A “COURSE”
This is going to be something more than just a “course.” It’s going to be a participatory journey. And not just for the participants, but for me, as well.
The whole concept is still a work in progress, as the participants in this “course” type thing will realize. There are no textbooks (yet) on the ABT Framework, but at this point, there are countless people putting it to work in trying to figure out the narrative core of their work, which means the AND (the context), the BUT (the problem being addressed), and the THEREFORE (what needs to be done).
There is so much to the ABT Framework that it’s definitely time to pull it all together into a “course” that in part is an argument along these lines: The ABT is a powerful communications tool AND lots of people are beginning to see how ubiquitous it is in our culture, BUT I’m going to argue even further — that it is everything, THEREFORE … I hope you’ll join us and hold my feet to the fire because … I might be wrong.
WHAT WE’LL BE TALKING ABOUT …
Each hour session will begin with a 25 minute lecture, followed by 25 minutes of my working with 5 individuals LIVE on their ABTs as the rest of the group listens in and offers up comments and questions in the CHAT BOX. At the end I’ll address a few of the questions in the 10 minutes of Q&A, but then later (probably that afternoon) I’ll also address other comments and questions from the Chat Box in writing, in an online forum we’ll be maintaining along with the “course.”
Here’s a little bit of teaser material for what each of the lectures will be about.
1 INTRO: AND (Agreement)
Seriously? An entire 25 minutes just for the one word, “AND”? Yes, starting with the 2015 study from the Stanford Literary Lab that documented the frequency of the use of this one seemingly meaningless word in the legendarily boring annual reports of the World Bank. Sadly, it’s a word with a big future, if we don’t realize how boring it is. And … tune in to hear lots more, about this, the most common word of agreement.
2 INTRO: BUT (Contradiction)
Is there a more important word in the entire English language? You might think so, BUT … I would argue not. The word “BUT” is the most common word of contradiction, and contradiction is at the center of narrative structure. AND … narrative structure goes back thousands of years — it’s how we communicate. I’ve got hours to say about this one word, BUT …
3 INTRO: THEREFORE (Consequence)
This is the real meat of what you’re here to hear. By the end of the first week of the course, everyone is going to want an answer to the basic question of, “So what’s the THEREFORE of this course?” It’s basically the old, “Where’s the beef?” question. And it turns out to be the real substance of the ABT — basically, enough with the A and the B, we want to know the T. THEREFORE, what are we going to learn with this course?
4 The ABT in Business
Business is branding, and branding is ABT. Yes, it’s that simple. It’s what makes your product sell. “Lots of companies make widgets that do this AND this, BUT nobody makes a widget that does this, THEREFORE, you need to buy my widget.” Yes, there’s a million more facets to the elusive art of branding, but at the core, it’s as simple as ABT because business is argument, and argument is ABT.
5 The ABT in Politics
From the iconic Gettysburg Address onward, where you find great speeches, you’ll find the ABT at work. Narrative is leadership. People don’t follow leaders who are boring or confusing. From MLK, Jr to Richard Nixon’s megalomaniacal first inauguration address, every great speech is built around the ABT elements. In this lecture we’ll use the Narrative Index (the BUT/AND ratio) to reveal this.
6 The ABT in Entertainment
This is where it started. Aristotle and the Greeks first recognized the 5 part (which was essentially 3 part) structure of their plays. The rest … as they say … is … you guessed it — history. From Joseph Campbell to George Lucas to Oprah Winfrey delivering a Golden Globes speech for the ages. We live in a media society. Media is ABT. Today, narrative intuition is obligatory for success in all facets of life.
7 The ABT in Science
A century ago scientists “got it” on the ABT. They came together and established a structure for their communication that came to be known as the IMRAD Template (standing for Introduction, Methods, Results, And, Discussion). Today … a lot of that collective consciousness of narrative intuition has been lost in our information drenched sea of obfuscation. Guess what the result is for the communication of science in today’s world (not good).
8 The ABT in Medicine
For a teaser of this lecture read my article in Scientific American last month titled, “A New Tool for Humanizing Medicine: It’s called the ABT Template, and if you want to talk to patients simply and clearly, it’s ideal.”
9 Narrative Selection
It’s a big concept, but by the time I get here, you’ll hopefully be right there with me in the realization that this is the most important shaping force of our entire culture. The brain is narrative. The brain selects what persists. Our culture is made up of what has persisted. Narrative is our culture.
10 Narrative is Everything
In the end, it’s not about the ABT. It’s about the three forces that underlie the three words — Agreement, Contradiction, Consequence. These are the forces you see at work in all communication. They are the elements that ultimately determine whether humans compete or cooperate. They are everything.
AND … THE PARTICIPATORY PART
The “course” will be limited to 50 participants because that’s the maximum number of 5 minute time slots we can fit. When you enroll, you have to submit your one sentence ABT (a one sentence statement using the words And, But, Therefore that is the narrative core of a project you’re working on).
For each session, 5 individuals will be chosen for the “ABT Build” part which will be 25 minutes in length. For each person, they will join me on screen to read their ABT once or twice or more, then I’ll start to work, dissecting it, using the set of tools we’ve developed in Story Circles to poke, probe, revise and hopefully ultimately strengthen it.
All the while, the rest of the group will be listening in, adding comments, questions and suggestions to the Chat Box. Eventually everyone will get their 5 minute session, which is always fun.
LAST NOTE: SORRY, THE SESSIONS WON’T BE RECORDED
Yeah. Bummer. I know. You were hoping you could sign up, go for a walk during the time slot, then listen to the session that evening. Not gonna happen. You miss it, you miss it.
I want all participants present for every session. Even if there’s only ten people who enroll, it’s going to be about EVERYONE taking part — listening, thinking, contributing.
And all “of the moment.” Experiential. You’ll want to be listening with every neuron in the narrative part of your brain, and then some.
Yesterday, to enjoy 90 minutes of escapism, we ran a Story Circles “Demo Session” with 5 of our recent graduates. It was fun, interesting, and a valuable thing to do in a time where the communication of science has never, ever been more important. You can listen to the audio of the session here, and “play along” using the four abstracts and one narrative below to get a feel for how the training works.
STARS OF THE SHOW: Clockwise from top left: Michael Bart (National Park Service, Colorado), Andrea Taylor (School of Psychology, University of Waikato, NZ), Alison Mims (National Park Service, Colorado), Randy Olson (scientist-turned-filmmaker), Mevagh Sanson (School of Psychology, University of Waikato, NZ), Elizabeth Stulberg (Agronomy, Crops, and Soil Science Societies).
THE STANDARD ONE HOUR STORY CIRCLES SESSION
Story Circles Narrative Trainingconsists of 10 one hour sessions of five people meeting, usually once a week. The goal of the training is to strengthen your “narrative intuition” — a term I coined in my 2015 book, “Houston, We Have A Narrative,” which provides background on all of the concepts presented in the training.
The first half hour is Narrative Analysis where they are given 5 texts to analyze using the ABT Framework (for this demo session we only used four). The second half of the hour is Narrative Development where each participant has an assignment. For this session the assignment were as follows and the materials analyzed are below.
MODERATOR – Michael
NARRATIVE – Mevagh
WORD TEMPLATE /ARGUMENT – Andrea
SENTENCE TEMPLATE – Elizabeth
PARAGRAPH TEMPLATE – Alison
Neuron:glial ratios were determined in specific regions of Albert Einstein’s cerebral cortex to compare with samples from 11 human male cortices. Cell counts were made on either 6- or 20-μm sections from areas 9 and 39 from each hemisphere. All sections were stained with the Klüver-Barrera stain to differentiate neurons from glia, both astrocytes and oliogdendrocytes. Cell counts were made under oil immersion from the crown of the gyrus to the white matter by following a red line drawn on the coverslip. The average number of neurons and glial cells was determined per microscopic field. The results of the analysis suggest that in left area 39, the neuronal:glial ratio for the Einstein brain is significantly smaller than the mean for the control population (t = 2.62, df 9, p < 0.05, two-tailed). Einstein’s brain did not differ significantly in the neuronal:glial ratio from the controls in any of the other three areas studied.
Tumor cells can spread to distant sites through their ability to switch between mesenchymal and amoeboid (bleb-based) migration. Because of this difference, inhibitors of metastasis must account for each migration mode. However, the role of Vimentin in amoeboid migration has not been determined. Since amoeboid, Leader Bleb-Based Migration (LBBM) occurs in confined spaces and Vimentin is known to strongly influence cell mechanical properties, we hypothesized that a flexible Vimentin network is required for fast amoeboid migration. Tothisend,here we determined the precise role of the Vimentin intermediate filament system in regulating the migration of amoeboid human cancer cells. Vimentin is a classic marker of epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition and is therefore an ideal target for a metastasis inhibitor. Using a previously developed PDMS slab-based approach to confine cells, RNAi-based Vimentin silencing, Vimentin over-expression, pharmacological treatments, and measurements of cell stiffness, we found that RNAi-mediated depletion of Vimentin increases LBBM by ~50% compared with control cells and that Vimentin over-expression and Simvastatin-induced Vimentin bundling inhibit fast amoeboid migration and proliferation. Importantly, these effects were independent of changes in actomyosin contractility. Our results indicate that a flexible Vimentin intermediate filament network promotes LBBM of amoeboid cancer cells in confined environments and that Vimentin bundling perturbs cell mechanical properties and thereby inhibits the invasive properties of cancer cells.
Thirteen-year-old Kayla hosts a YouTube series called “Kayla’s Korner” where she gives advice to an imagined audience of her peers. She picks topics like “Being Yourself” and “Putting Yourself Out There” and stumbles her way through a pep-talk peppered with “like” and glances at her notes. A glimpse of the subscriber count shows that Kayla’s Korner hasn’t exactly taken off. Kayla airbrushes out her acne, and swoops on heavy eyeliner. This is a young girl trying to understand what she is going through, and she does so by positioning herself as an expert and a helper to others.
Four male friends who live an ordinary existence in Kentucky come up with a scheme to make their lives more interesting. After a visit to Transylvania University, they concoct the idea to steal the rarest and most valuable books from the school’s library. As one of the most audacious art heists in U.S. history starts to unfold, the men question whether their attempts to inject excitement and purpose into their lives are simply misguided attempts at achieving the American dream.
This is the narrative from Mevagh Sanson (a brief description of her dissertation research) that is the focus of the second half hour of the session.
We can be mentally whisked away from the present, back to re-live our past, or forward to “pre-live” our hypothetical future. Re-living our negative past too intensely and frequently can impair us in the present, as Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. But PTSD is conceptualised only as a disorder in which people are haunted by their past. Given that re-living and pre-living are closely related abilities, I propose that pre-living our hypothetical negative future too intensely and frequently similarly impairs us, as “pre-traumatic stress disorder.” I will investigate the ways in which people are haunted by their future.
We live in a media society, yet the members of congress have almost no in-depth media skills. Specifically, Senate.gov in 2018 said, “the dominant professions of Members of Congress are public service/politics, business, and law.” Those are not media/entertainment professions. And yet, we live in a media society where the head politician, the president, does himself have a background in media and entertainment which has clearly given him a huge, huge advantage over the past four years in working the media in his favor. The Democrats had one senator from the entertainment world who could match the president because he understood the importance of “performance” for today’s government. But they got rid of him.
AL KNOWS NARRATIVE. Of course he does. He comes from the entertainment world. He was a priceless resource for the Democratic party. He has deep narrative intuition. Still. (Photograph by Geordie Wood for the New Yorker)
SHOOT THE LAWYERS (NOT THE ENTERTAINER)
I am of the opinion that the obliteration of Senator Al Franken was the worst political event I’ve witnessed in all of my years of following politics, going back to the early 1960’s. The injustice of it was revealed powerfully in, “The Case of Al Franken,” the excellent New Yorker article last year by Jane Mayer.
After resigning from the senate (which still feels surreal), Franken went away for a while, but last year returned a little bit with his new podcast which I thoroughly enjoy. Last month he had as a guest MSNBC host and long time political writer Lawrence O’Donnell. It’s an excellent episode — lots of fun, lots of substance, but then eventually a sequence that I found once again heart wrenching.
Why was Franken so exceptional with opponents like that? Because of irrationality. Those sorts of characters are not bounded by the truth. They are completely irrational, which drives rational, honest people crazy.
But comedy is an irrational force, and is the proper match for them. I said this a decade ago when highly rational and honest climate scientists were being driven crazy by engaging in debates with climate skeptics.
Franken understands theatrics, and theatrics are at the heart of today’s politics. He gave a little glimpse into this in his discussion with Lawrence O’Donnell. Here’s a sequence where they are talking about senate hearings. I’ve put the best parts in red.
AL FRANKEN: I was disappointed with some of the judiciary hearings — on Kavanaugh, on Bill Barr — that was a real opportunity — and, you know, I had a performing background and knew how to create a moment and … I feel like my former colleagues don’t.
LAWRENCE O’DONNELL – No, they don’t have performing backgrounds, and so they’re not going to be able to deliver this the way that television critics want them to —
AL FRANKEN – Actually, it’s not television critics so much — it’s about creating a moment that gets on TV.
LAWRENCE O’DONNELL – Right. Yeah. They don’t know how to do that. That’s performing. You’re both a writer and a performer. You need senators who have staffers who think that way and know how to think that way and they don’t, generally, you then need senators who know how to deliver it, and they don’t generally, even if you laid it out for them — this is exactly how they should perform this — they wouldn’t know how to perform it. And then it’s interactive, and the way you planned to do it with this particular witness might now work.
AL FRANKEN – Oh, you have to listen to the witness, all the time.
LAWRENCE O’DONNELL – Well now you’re talking about improvising, which just about no one can do.
AL FRANKEN – What I’m saying is, moments get on TV.
There you have it. “Moments get on TV.” That is what good storytelling is about — building to moments.
And this, once again, is the basic divide between the ABT and the AAA structure. The ABT sets up a context with the AND material. Then it builds tension with the BUT, and then … if it’s done well, there comes “a moment” with the THEREFORE.
AAA is just flatlining — laying out fact after fact after fact, never really quite building to “a moment.” It’s what prevails in congress, and why C-SPAN coverage of Congress has been a running joke for decades.
Franken is absolutely right. Members of congress don’t get this, and they don’t get it in a big way. The Democrat senators demonstrated it brilliantly with the Kavanaugh hearing as I discussed on a podcast — a gigantic scattershot mess of “everyone doing their own thing” that never built to anything other than yet another gigantic defeat for the Democrats.
Franken was the great dramatic hope for the senate.
And actually, he did finally get his one big moment. It was recounted in painful detail in Jane Mayer’s New Yorker article. It was the story of the week, the day, the hour and the moment when Senator Chuck Schumer visited Franken in his apartment in DC and told him he had until 5:00 that afternoon to announce his resignation.
That was definitely a dramatic a moment. Which sucked.
Last week I published this article in Ensia about science fiction author Michael Crichton. It was criticized from both the left (“You implied the science community made him into a climate skeptic” – yes, the science community wore him down), and the right (“You called him the divisive, insulting label of ‘climate denier’” – yes, the editors changed my label of “skeptic” to “denier” — boo hoo).
Below I list 5 main sources I’ve drawn on for insight on Michael Crichton’s climate experience. Yes, he eventually wrote an unforgiveably bad novel about climate and deserved rebuke for drifting into a camp that was beneath him. But that said, the science world is still guilty of an enormous MISSED OPPORTUNITY for communication caused by the myopia that always plagues scientists in the subject of climate change.
Michael Crichton’s final interview with Charlie Rose in 2007: Two old friends, both sadly headed to ignominy.
A GIANT OF A MISSED OPPORTUNITY
Michael Crichton was a giant of a man, both figuratively with all his writings, and literally with his enormous height of six foot nine. He died shortly after turning 66. In the final act of his career he turned against the environmental movement resulting in his death having a fair amount of “good riddance” vibe to it.
But Crichton was incredibly smart, charismatic, and widely liked by all who knew him. Michael Ovitz, who was probably the best businessman Hollywood has known in the past five decades, ran Creative Artists Agency which represented Crichton for most of his filmmaking career. Ovitz wrote an entire chapter about Crichton in his autobiography that came out in 2018. The last line of that chapter said it all for Ovitz, “I miss him every fucking day.”
Michael Crichton was better than Carl Sagan when it came to science communication. Sagan was fun, but he was a doofus that I remember Johnny Carson making fun of constantly. Nobody made fun of Crichton. All the way up to Steven Spielberg — they listened and respected him when he spoke.
I weighed in last week on the environmental site Ensia arguing that, yes, Crichton did bad things in promoting the anti-environmental agenda in his final decade, but before he was bad, he was good. He offered up powerful insights on the communication of science, but scientists were basically blind to him.
The science community can be blind at times. Science suffers from a lack of leadership. A good leader would have, in 1980, known that communication was already being identified as a major challenge to science, which it was — I remember it vividly, it’s when I first started getting interested in the subject. Anyone with an open mind would have surveyed the landscape, spotted Crichton’s split background of science and cinema, plus seeing that his 1975 paper on “Medical Obfuscation,” showed that he already knew the problem — then set to work doing whatever it took to recruit him to be a major constructive, positive asset to science.
But that didn’t happen. Here’s at least three reasons why.
THREE REASONS WHY CRICHTON WAS IGNORED
1) IVORY TOWER – Michael Crichton left the Ivory Tower of academia in the late 1970’s. As soon as you do that, you’re viewed as inferior. It’s an age old syndrome. It’s simply what academics do. It even happens when you stay in the Ivory Tower and dabble outside of it as Carl Sagan did. Academics look down on non-academics. How do I know? Because I did it when I was a tenured professor of marine biology. I thought people at government agencies were second rate — people who couldn’t cut it in academia. That wasn’t based on experience, it was the mindset drilled into me by the faculty and grad students above me. There is no avoiding it. When you go to church, you are programmed with the doctrine. Academia is a church. Furthermore, Crichton went to Hollywood, meaning he joined the circus. Nobody wants to seek the wisdom of a Hollywood clown.
2) HERO WORSHIP – Scientists love being worshipped. It’s another age old syndrome. And again, I know this because I was one. They gather their knowledge, then hold it over the heads of the public. It’s fun! It’s a game the public likes to play as well — turn to the scientists, as if they are the mystical, flawless soothsayers of our society. But they aren’t. They make a mess of just as much stuff as average citizens. Furthermore, today’s information overloaded society has produced a science world that is filled with massive amounts of publication flaws and shortcomings. It’s all run by humans, there are no flawless heroes. Again, this was Crichton’s life’s theme.
3) NO LEADERSHIP – Science is run by committees, top to bottom. Committees don’t lead, they facilitate. They don’t come up with good ideas and make them happen, they wait for individuals to come to them with good ideas that they can support or reject. Given the mountains of money and good times Crichton was having in Hollywood, he wasn’t about to ask a committee if they wanted his help.
The result by 2007 was the dark demise of a brilliant man with a brilliant mind. He spent the last decade of his life trying to follow the basic practice of his life’s work — which was to question science and scientists. But this time he found himself ending up as an enemy of science.
Here are 5 sources that I draw on in forming my impression of who Michael Crichton was, and why his life presents a story that the science world, if it really is interested in creating a healthy, human society for the future, should learn from. Of course I’m probably dreaming, but so was Crichton.
FIVE SOURCES OF MY INSIGHTS INTO WHO MICHAEL CRICHTON WAS
1) THE 2007 CHARLIE ROSE INTERVIEW – everyone should watch this sad, sad record of who Michael Crichton was near the end of his life. In 2007, a year before his death, Crichton did a final interview with his friend, Charlie Rose (who is now disgraced and disowned for his work place behavior).
You’ll see two things on display. First, that he had been beaten down by his critics, but also second that he wasn’t a raving madman. He was very civil, very dignified, very respectful, and was only asking for what the entire practice of science is supposed to be — an exercise in rational thought. By 2007 he had been the target of a great deal of irrational rage, delivered in the name of science.
Granted, he brought it on himself. It began with his questioning of the environmental movement, then ultimately ridiculing the movement in his poorly crafted novel, “State of Fear.”
For me, the act of learning about his writing that novel was like learning that one of your favorite interviewers of smart people turns out to be a serial sexual harasser (Charlie). The novel wasn’t just transparent in it’s anti-environmental agenda, it was pathetic in it’s lack of human depth of characters. As much as I’d like to defend Crichton’s questioning of climate science, that novel makes it impossible at a human level. He proved himself to be utterly tone deaf with it.
But still, he was always civilized and wanting only to be a provocateur. I think his core problem is that he was designed for a different era where the major discourse took place through written media that had editors who restrained the inner demons of writers. As I myself experienced in 2005, the internet allowed for the bypassing of editors for many venues, unleashing a Pandora’s Box of hatred on the public in a way that humanity still hasn’t figured out how to deal with (though comedian Ricky Gervais, in his brilliant and aptly titled Netflix special, “Humanity,” has plenty to say about it that’s wonderful).
Crichton spent his last decade as a target and victim of roving packs of online trolls that he never made sense of.
Here’s transcription of some of the most powerful and insightful moments of the interview with regard to the climate issue. I’ve added red for some of the most interesting bits.
31:00 – ON THE MEDIA … Michael Crichton: The media is not interested in a balanced perspective Charlie Rose: I am MC: But you’re very rare.
32:00 – ON THE SUBJECT OF AL GORE’S MOVIE … MC: If I want to make a movie — that said what he said — I could make a much better movie. MC: Attitudinally it (Gore’s movie) is wrong. It is a scientific matter that we need to look at as dispassionately as possible.
35:00 – ON AL GORE AND “THE DATA” … MC: I think he relies on the expert witness, and I don’t. CR: You do the work yourself? MC: Yes CR: And you don’t think he does the work himself? MC: I don’t think he goes and looks at the data.
35:50 – ON THE FUTURE … MC: I believe the future is unknowable. MC: Climate, according to the last UN report, is a coupled, chaotic, non-linear system. They say long term prediction of climate is not possible.
36:30 – ON THE NEED FOR DRAMA … MC: Most people I know haven’t looked at the data at all.
37:00 MC: People always — it’s not just America — people line up for the catastrophe.
37:30 MC: I’ve done this as a test — sit down at a dinner party and say, “The world is coming to an end and you get immediately the aroused attention at the table. Alternatively you say, basically everything is good. The world is getting better … CR: Nobody cares. MC: No, they get angry. Or they turn away. It’s not what we want to hear. We want to hear disaster. CR: But isn’t that true about writing books and making movies? MC: Yeah. Crisis. Crisis. Tension. Drama. You don’t want to read a story that doesn’t have a story. That doesn’t have consequences.
39:00 – ON HIS OWN COURAGE … MC: I didn’t want to write it. I decided I wouldn’t write it. I said “I’ll keep my opinions to myself.” I had breakfast with a scientist friend of mine I hadn’t seen for 30 years. He said you have to write it. I said, “No, no, I’m gonna get killed for this.” I’d like to say as a result of that conversation I decided to write it. I went home and thought, “You know, I’m not writing this. I’ll keep my opinion to myself.” I started to work on something else and I felt like a coward.
39:50 – ON REDUCING EMISSIONS … CR: You’re not arguing we shouldn’t reduce the amount of fossil fuel we’re putting in the atmosphere? MC: No. CR: You’d be happy with tougher standards on auto emissions and all that stuff? MC: Should have done it decades ago. I was in favor of a carbon tax, 25 years ago. Still waiting for it. It’s a very logical thing to do.
40:20 – ON ENVIRONMENTALISM … MC: I want an environment that’s great. I don’t think this is as an important of a problem as other people do. That’s the essence of it.
50:30 – ON THE HATRED HE RECEIVED … MC: I proud of having done the book about global warming. I knew everybody was going to be against me, and I thought, this is what I believe, and I’m sorry, and I said it, and I did it, and I’ve taken just flack for it. You know what, it is what I believe. CR: You went into rough seas. MC: Very rough seas. Nasty and personal and brutal and unfair and mean. CR: What was nasty and brutal and unfair and mean? MC: Oh, Charlie, this is — you want to look at what people will say — for example, when I started talking about genetics, people would say you might get some criticism for this. Well, I haven’t gotten any criticism for genetics, let me tell you. I know what criticism is. But …… I’ve had the experience of having had books in print for 40 years, so I can go back and look at the stand I took when I was in favor of abortion when I was a medical student in Boston in 1967, six years before Roe v. Wade and I can look at that and go was I right or not and I can say dammit I was right. And when I wrote “State of Fear,” I was imaging, what’s it gonna look like in 40 years? I think I’m gonna come out just fine.
2) MY 28 YEAR FRIENDSHIP WITH A CLOSE ASSOCIATE OF CRICHTON – In 1992 I met a screenwriter who worked closely with Michael Crichton for 15 years, giving notes on his novels, writing screenplays for his movies, even founding a video game company with him in the late 1990’s. In 1999 he gave me a copy of Crichton’s AAAS speech before he delivered it. We’re still close friends. He’s shared a great deal of insights into what Crichton went through over the years.
3) MY EMAILS WITH CRICHTON IN 2007 –In 2007 — the same time as the Charlie Rose interview, a year before Crichton died and I was filming my movie “Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy,” my friend introduced me to Michael Crichton via email. We traded 4 months of emails. They reflect exactly what he’s saying in the Charlie Rose interview.
I wrote my first email expecting a two sentence reply wishing me well. What I got back was double the length of my email, saying it was probably already “too late” for the issue of global warming, and with a PS that warned me that the personal politics of global warming would be much worse than what I had encountered with intelligent design. He was right.
He also warned me at one point, “I am probably the most cynical person on this entire planet.”
There were about 20 emails from him over the next three months. Suffice it to say it reflected a man who wanted to engage in civilized discussion, but was worn out by all the rage he had endured. HOWEVER, I do think it’s worth asking how much of that rage was global warming versus the new found killing ground of the internet, blogging and posting comments. Had he published some of his earlier books in 2004 he probably would have received just as much troll action.
I certainly lived three decades of professional life and never experienced any of the mass insanity that erupted around 2005 with the advent of blogging. I think Crichton died long before everyone began to realize how mostly stupid and trivial social media arguing ends up being.
One pretty bad element was his line in one email, “Mark my words, four years from now global warming will be the WMD of today.” He was referring to the over-blown hype around Weapons of Mass Destruction and the war in the middle east. His quote looks pretty bad 13 years later. Whoops.
4) MIKE STRAUSS – My Story Circles co-developer Mike Strauss, who worked at AAAS in the 1990’s, was the guy who thought up, made happen, and hosted Crichton’s 1999 keynote speech to AAAS that was so prescient. He has shared with me all the details of that event — including the A/V problems during his speech (back in the old days of slide projectors that blew bulbs during talks), and the lame Q&A where nobody asked about the speech. They only wanted to know, “How can we make more Jurassic Park movies that will recruit more kids to science?”
5) HIS 2003 CAL TECH LECTURE “ALIENS CAUSE GLOBAL WARMING” – read his 2003 Cal Tech lecture— it is EXTREMELY smart and most of it hard to argue with.
In the end, Michael Crichton’s downfall was a lack of a deeper sense of people as deeply flawed humans. It’s reflected in his novels. He was extremely good with story structure, but at the same time, extremely weak on character development.
He was a shy, awkward man who really didn’t understand humans as well as might be expected of someone so successful with communicating TO humans. His novels were stories populated by stick figures.
He didn’t get it when it came to human nature, and is guilty of having done damage to the serious cause of environmentalism in general. But the climate community still needs to be faulted for being so single minded/myopic as to not having been able to pick out the good from the bad in what he had to say.
That was the point of my Ensia article. Before he was bad, he was good. Don’t be so myopic that you can’t look past the bad to make use of what was good. You don’t have to respect him, just learn from the experience.
I’m sure this isn’t appreciated, but what can you do. It’s very simple. Look at the molasses of their abstract, then look at the clarity and simplicity that the ABT structure brings. It’s a prime example of the obfuscation problem identified 45 years ago by Michael Crichton.
OBFUSCATION IS THE PROBLEM
There’s no need for detailed explication. In 1975, then-biomedical researcher Michael Crichton (later to be the author of “Jurassic Park,” among a wealth of science communication feats), published an appropriately concise paper identifying “obfuscation” as the prime target for effective science communication. His paper was ignored, and as a result, today we have authorities on science communication practicing obfuscation as they try to explain how it works. Just look at these two versions of the abstract for a paper appearing this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences titled, “Scientists’ Incentives and Attitudes Towards Public Communication.” It’s not that their version is wrong, it just has poor narrative structure, making it difficult to read (i.e. poorly communicated). This is what the ABT Framework is about. It’s not easy, but it’s essential if anyone is ever going to make any progress against the problem of obfuscation that was identified so simply so long ago.
Five years ago I thought the non-narrative AAA (And, And, And) structure was bad. I’ve slowly come to realize it’s not intrinsically bad, it’s just different. Also, it’s a central part of art. In this great clip from the 2002 movie “Adaptation,”Nicholas Cage plays a student who innocently asks screenwriting guru Robert McKee(played by an actor)about the basic non-narrative “slice of life” type of movie where “nothing happens,” which is what AAA structure is. McKee unloads on him with an ABT rant.
SO HOW DOES HE REALLY FEEL ABOUT AAA STRUCTURE?
CONFLICT ISN’T ESSENTIAL TO REACH THE MASSES, BUT CONTRADICTION IS
This is a great clip from the 2002 movie, “Adaptation,” (a movie that I originally I found boring and need to re-watch). The scene is a bullseye in capturing the simple divide between non-narrative approaches to material (AAA) and standard strongly narrative structure (ABT) found in popular mass media.
One note from the scene — you often hear people bemoaning the fact that the media is “conflict-driven.” Which is true. But mass entertainment isn’t. It is “contradiction-driven.” Conflict is just one of many forms of contradiction. Others include mystery, suspense, intrigue — basically everything that makes you sit up and take interest. That’s how narrative works — three forces — agreement, contradiction, consequence.
It’s a great clip. And yes, the structure of most real world mass communication is indeed this simple (sorry journalists). Hollywood figured it out decades ago. It’s why their knowledge is so essential for dealing with the Information Society of today, as politicians will some day grasp.
PS – Thanks to former Nat Geo writer Alan Mairson for posting the “Adaptation” clip in a Twitter discussion we were having about narrative structure.