#130) The ABT/Narrative Fingerprint of the United States

Southerners tell stories, northerners are more informational/intellectualMaybe.  More than a billion tweets suggest this.





One of the best payoffs from the presentation Jayde Lovell and I gave at SXSW Interactive was the vigorous discussions that popped up on Twitter.  In the middle of one of them we got a big treat which you can see above.

Jack Grieve is a “forensic linguist” at Ashton University in the U.K.  He joined our discussion and mentioned this amazing study he was part of.  It’s called The Great American Word Mapper, where they analyzed over a billion tweets in the United States.

On Monday this week we had him connect through Skype to our Story Circles Narrative Training Demo Day with USGS folks in Minneapolis.  He told us more detail about the study.   It turns out every time you tweet, there are geographic coordinates recorded.  That’s what they used to produce this amazing regional resource.

We were discussing my Narrative Index (BUT/AND x 100).  He sent us the above plots for BUT versus AND.  Which is incredibly fascinating.  And exactly what I would predict.



Long, long ago, when I was still a professor at UNH, I heard a talk from the Director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi.  He made the case that the south is THE voice of American culture.  He based this on a number of aspects, such as the only truly original art form the U.S. has given the world is jazz music, and the largest number of great novelists and playwrights have come from the south.   He also pointed out there are no other centers for the study of culture for other parts of the country. 

Having grown up in Kansas and spent plenty of time in the south, I definitely know that it is the greatest region for storytelling in the country.  Which means I would expect it to be the region of the greatest ABT activity, and thus … exactly what you see — the greatest use of BUT in tweets.

There’s lots of other reasons for this pattern you could suggest.  He felt it was strongly correlated to African American populations, but … look at Maryland — it has the 4th highest percentage of African American population.  And look at New York versus Arkansas — they have the same percentage.

I think it’s a higher level function.  I would argue the north/south difference in storytelling holds across all ethnicities.  But then what do I know — I’m just making this ABT stuff up as we go along!

#129) President Trump Shows How the Narrative Index Works

PREDICTION:  A well written comic speech should have an exceptionally high Narrative Index (BUT/AND ratio) — meaning above 20, ideally in the 30’s as Bill Maher’s weekly monologues almost always have.  OBSERVATION:  President Trump’s Gridiron comic speech on March 4, 2018 scored a stunningly high 44.  There is a science to narrative structure.  

TRUMP DELIVERS A WELL CRAFTED COMIC SPEECH. Regardless of content, whoever wrote it for him did an expert job with the narrative structure, and the speech was well received.



I’m in Austin where tomorrow Jayde Lovell and I will present our panel titled, Selling Science (Before the World Melts Down).”  Here’s a little tip for the science world on how to sell yourself — get to know these two narrative metrics I’ve been working with for the past 2.5 years.


AND INDEX =  AND / TOTAL WORDS (% of words that are “and”)



On March 4 President Trump delivered a comic speech to the Gridiron Club.  The Narrative Index was 44 which is extremely high (38 BUTs, 87 ANDs).  I’ve only found one other speech ever that was above 40 which was Richard Nixon’s first inaugural (a barn burner from the guy who was determined to get himself into the Oval Office at all costs).

Good comedy has a high Narrative Index.  It has to.  Comedians cannot afford to bore or confuse.  They need to hit story points that are clear, and emerge at a consistent pace. 

These metrics are clear and predictable, and yet all I get from journalists is, “yeah, we know.”  Really?  Where?  Show me one article you’ve written on this.  

To the contrary, just look at the upheaval last year at the World Bank when Chief Economist Paul Romer tried to implement the “Bankspeak” study by Moretti and Pestre of the Stanford Literary Lab revealing the problem with the And Index for World Bank reports.  The end result was a kibosh on the whole concept.

Minds are closed to these metrics, but they will open soon enough.  Our SXSW panel tomorrow will be the next effort.

#128) How the Kids in Florida are like The March for Science

Two spontaneous sets of events, both arising from the ground up.  The message of gun control from the Florida kids is clear — our leadership has failed us.  What was less clear last year was that the March For Science had the same message — the organizers just didn’t take it as far.  But it’s the same situation — kids under attack, science under attack — in both cases politicians and leaders unwilling or unable to act.  My heart is firmly with both groups.  

 What happens when leadership fails.



In early April Island Press will publish the the 2nd edition of my first book, Don’t Be Such A Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style.”  I’ve written 50 pages of new content for it, including a new Introduction.  The core message of the new material is, “Make Science Human.”  Below is a section I wrote about the March for Science last year.

Now, watching the news about the heart wrenching, long overdue spontaneous gun control movement emerging in Florida I see great similarities.  Their movement is far more dire and urgent, but both are at the core about one thing — failed leadership.

I’ve been observing the attacks on science since my 2006 documentary, “Flock of Dodos:  The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus.”  I’ve been stunned at the inaction of the higher ranks of the science community in defending their own profession.  The March for Science was explicitly about the attacks on science, with the key slogan of “Science Not Silence.”

But what wasn’t articulated was the source of the problems — leadership that does nothing.  In the case of Florida, the outrage is quantum levels greater. They are not pulling any punches as they point the finger of blame at congress, as they rightfully should. 

Science should keep an eye on how they are managing to take their movement to the next level.

Here’s what I’ve written about the March for Science in the upcoming 2nd edition.


And . . . the Problem Came to Life with the March for Science

Spontaneity. Not a common trait for the science world. I talk about it in detail in the first chapter of this book—how scientists lack it and how improv acting fosters it. Spontaneity is the antidote for the excessively cerebral.

Scientists are great if you let them control every single thing that is going to happen. You can see this in how experiments are run. They usually include these things called “controls.” Does that term give you a little feel for how scientists feel about spontaneity? As soon as something unplanned crops up, watch out. 

Such is the wonderful and inspiring story of the March for Science. Nobody at the top of the science world was involved with its inception.

In military terms, it was like low-level soldiers planning a mass rally by taking their plans to the top general, putting a gun to his head, and saying, “You’re in favor of this, right?” That’s essentially what happened with the March for Science when it came to the major science organizations—they were approached after the march was already planned. Many of them felt too rushed, too pressured, and declined to officially support it.

The idea for the march began with a discussion on the Internet site Reddit in January—just three months before the march itself took place. A few people were innocently talking about the Women’s March, a month earlier, which had involved over 4 million participants. Someone mentioned the idea of doing the same thing for science. A small group agreed. They were just average folks—no heads of organizations. They organized a Facebook group, and to their surprise the membership began growing rapidly.

I spoke with Valorie Aquino, one of the three codirectors of the march. She said they had a conference call in which they mused over the 1,000 members the Facebook group now had. They ended their call with a clear plan of how to grow the group to about 3,000 within a month.

The next morning they awoke to the stunning news that the group had grown overnight to 10,000. Within a week it had passed 100,000. By the time I spoke with her, it was approaching a million. Clearly, they had struck a chord. But where did all the energy come from?


Figure I-1. The 2017 March for Science started spontaneously in the gut. It was a narrative mess, but . . . it made me feel something because it was human. Photo in the public domain; accessed via Wikimedia Commons.


My friend Aaron Huertas joined the communications team for the project. Initially we both felt the march needed a clear message, which means “a narrative”—a clear problem-solution dynamic. Now I see I was kind of wrong.

Ed Yong in the Atlantic pointed out the confusion by listing twenty-one messages that were being mentioned by organizers of the march. A number of articles were written arguing against the march itself. Many complained that the whole effort was politicizing science.

In the end, the organizers really weren’t certain whether the event was meant to be a happy, fun science day for the family (like a science festival) or a more adult-oriented science version of the Women’s March a few months earlier, which was filled with contempt for the newly elected president.


Putting the Mess into Messaging

The messaging ended up being a mess, but so what—turns out sometimes you don’t need a message . . . yet. I remember arguing this in September 2011, when the Occupy Wall Street movement emerged. The protestors’ narrative wasn’t very clear during the first week they began generating mass attention. Lots of news pundits—including my longtime hero Chris Matthews of MSNBC’s Hardball—criticized the movement, saying, “They don’t know what they want.”

But mass movements are almost never created by intellectuals with clearly thought-out plans. No, they generally arise from the masses, who are driven by the gut. Down the line, things move to the head—which is exactly what we eventually saw several years later as Senator Bernie Sanders began articulating a plan of action pursuing basically the same goals as the disorganized youngsters who occupied Wall Street.

So, despite the rain that spring Saturday morning in Washington, DC, tens of thousands of happy, fun, enthusiastic people turned up and the event was a stunning success. People carried all kinds of wildly creative and inspiring signs. Speeches were given before the march. They weren’t the sort of landmark speeches that have historically accompanied major protest events in Washington, DC. The speakers didn’t really seem to know what to say because . . . there was no clear message. But again, so what?

At the end of the march, in front of the Capitol building, there was . . . nothing. Just a woman with a bullhorn telling everyone in the rain to visit the website and keep the effort going. And that still didn’t matter. The event was all about the hour-and-a-half-long march itself and the sheer mass of humanity that was present, acting not like scientists but more like humans.

The crowd size was estimated at around 100,000. You could criticize it to pieces for not having a clear message if you wanted to impress your friends. Or you could just soak it all in and even feel some emotion about it. I went with the latter.

At just about the start time, I exited the Ronald Reagan Building, taking a break from a conservation event, and joined my old marine biologist buddy Bob Steneck of the University of Maine. We strolled down into the masses and marched from the start, near the Washington Monument. Within a few minutes we ran into Dr. Daniel Pauly, another old buddy and the famous fisheries biologist who coined the popular term “shifting baselines,” which I talk about in the first chapter. About halfway up Constitution Avenue, Bob and I stepped out of the crowd to walk up the stairs at the IRS building and watch the river of humans flow past. It was downright breathtaking.

What hit me most was the age range of marchers. There were lots of families with kids. Some we talked to had no connection to the world of science— they were just there for the spirit of it.

Others carried amazing signs—like two little kids holding a sign saying, “This family has five scientists!” Another family pushed a young woman in a wheelchair with a sign saying “Thanking Science for Research on Multiple Sclerosis.” That’s the stuff that made me look down at the ground and choke back tears. It really hit you—there was a huge, supremely human element to the event.

But the obvious question was, why was the turnout for the March for Science, despite the pouring rain, so incredibly large and inspired?

#127) THE NARRATIVE METRICS GAME: How Will Trump’s State of the Union Score?

The Narrative Index (BUT/AND x 100) is not super-precise but certain patterns do emerge— like Nixon’s fierceness and George W. Bush’s stunning blandness.  When Trump writes his own materialhis values are high (over 20), when others write it for him, they’re low (around 10).   I’m predicting he’s around 10 to 15, and with an And Index that is closer to the score of journalists than research reports.


STATE OF THE NARRATIVE.  The error bars represent the range of values for the State of the Union speeches of the past 8 presidents.  George W. Bush was the ultimate “And, And, And” president.  His AND INDEX (% of words that are “and”) averaged 4.7, which is right up there with World Bank reports (= Zzzz …).



Nobody wants to give in to the simplicity of these two little metrics yet.  Last year World Bank Chief Economist Paul Romer was booted from a committee for trying to use the AND INDEX.   But with time the “experts” will come to realize they’re real.  

It’s two simple numbers:


THE AND INDEX =  AND/TOTAL WORDS (expressed as a percentage)

 I’ve gotten tired of trying to interest journalists in them — they apparently think there can’t be this sort of meaningful simplicity in the world.  The Narrative Index usually has a fair amount of noise around it, but there are some patterns that are undeniable.  Nixon’s first inaugural speech scored a blazing 46.  That’s the highest I’ve ever seen for any speech. After waiting a lifetime to be president, he was roaring with pent up frustration.

Eisenhower’s State of the Union speeches went from bland in his early years (6, 6, 5, 5, 7) to feistier in his last three years (19, 11, 12) as he foretold the impending perils of the military industrial complex.  But the biggest shocker is George W. Bush who never scored above 5 in his State of the Union addresses.  He was a nice fellow who just didn’t want to push anybody (which is what’s happening when you use the word “but” a lot).



You can bet I’ll be calculating both indices for him as soon as the transcript is posted.  I do it every week for Bill Maher’s ending monologue  on his HBO show.  Almost without fail, as I’ve noted in previous posts, he is always above 30.  That’s because he’s angry and he’s arguing fiercely, and he has a crack team of comedy writers who know how to disgorge narrative content without wasting words or falling into the land of “And, And, And.”

I’m guessing Trump will be around 15 for the Narrative Index and 3.5 for the And Index. Tune in the next morning, I’ll tweet what it is.

#126) The Dangerous Depth of Trump’s Narrative Strength

Yes, I know that no one likes to hear it, but these are hard, cold facts.  Michael Crichton said in 1999, “The information society will be dominated by those who are most skilled at manipulating the media.”  He foretold Trump, plain and simple.  Just look at yesterday’s immigration meeting.





Mass communication is about age old “archplot” dynamics, more than anything else.  As Robert McKee outlined in his landmark 1997 book, “Story,” the first and most important element of archplot is “The Single Protagonist,” which just means the singular narrative.  The importance of this was hammered home in the 2012 best seller “The One Thing.”  Plain, simple, uni-dimensional, no nuance, no subtlety.

Every time you hear one of Trump’s silly nicknames — like Sloppy Steve Bannon over the past week — you shouldn’t be chuckling.  The names may seem like fun, but you should be thinking of Crichton’s 1999 line that, “The information society will be dominated by those who are most skilled at manipulating the media.”  

The names are simple, logical (at least based on his opinions) and most important, they are mass media-friendly, and as a result, they stick.  Which is now bad news for Bannon.  But at the same time nobody has forgotten Little Marco, Lyin’ Ted, Crooked Hillary or Pocahantas.  

And in the meanwhile, what’s the nickname Trump’s opponents have stuck on him?  Nada.


Think about it in terms of our media-driven society.  Media is narrative.  You can’t score media exposure without strong narrative content (meaning large amounts of agreement, contradiction and consequence).  It’s like an evolutionary “adaptive landscape” in which the element of fitness being selected for is narrative strength.  

This is why I think at the moment that Oprah is the only reasonable source of hope for a Democratic presidential candidate, and why the loss of Al Franken (a media-savvy veteran) was so devastating.  We now live in the media society that Niel Postman was predicting with his 1985 book, “Amusing Ourselves to Death.”  It will continue to select for those who know how to manipulate the media, and that, more than likely, means established media veterans. 

The world changes. 

#125) Oprah Gives an ABT Tour De Force

You want to see and hear narrative in its purest form?  I’ve been saying for a couple of years now, “narrative is leadership.”  Oprah just gave a textbook demonstration of this last night at the Golden Globes.  Here’s my analysis.  This is what leadership sounds like.

THE ABT AT WORK.  Oprah’s speech was a case study of how to deliver narrative structure.



Narrative consists of 3 forces:  Agreement, Contradiction, Consequence.  The art of leadership is using them in the right measures, in the right places, and for the right durations.  The ability to do this comes from having narrative intuition.  Have a look at Oprah’s instant classic speech from last night at the Golden Globes.

Look at how she opens with A STORY that is full of SPECIFICS.  It’s a solid ABT (the And, But, Therefore narrative template) as she sets up her minor problem of not being able to find the words to articulate her experience.  You know who hit on this same problem of not being capable of conveying the enormity of an experience?  Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address when he said, “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here,”

They both hit on the point that “these events are much greater than anything I can convey.”

The entire speech is solid “problem-solution” dynamics.  No wallowing in accomplishments, no excessive congratulations, no silliness.

And look how it finishes — with the dream for “that new day” — completely reminiscent of Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I Have A Dream” speech in which he outlined the journey we are on, proclaiming progress, but saying we’re not yet there — finishing by describing the dream for the future.

This was a landmark speech, Oprah has deep narrative intuition, and the leadership skills — at least in communication dynamics — that our system selects for.


To break it down I color code the three elements throughout the speech using BLUE (agreement), RED (contradiction) and GREEN (consequence).

Thank you, Reese. In 1964, I was a little girl sitting on the linoleum floor of my mother’s house in Milwaukee watching Anne Bancroft present the Oscar for best actor at the 36th Academy Awards. She opened the envelope and said five words that literally made history:” The winner is Sidney Poitier.” Up to the stage came the most elegant man I ever remembered. His tie was white, his skin was black—and he was being celebrated. I’d never seen a black man being celebrated like that. I tried many, many times to explain what a moment like that means to a little girl, a kid watching from the cheap seats as my mom came through the door bone tired from cleaning other people’s houses. But all I can do is quote and say that the explanation is in Sidney‘s performance in Lilies of the Field: “Amen, amen, amen, amen.” 

In 1982, Sidney received the Cecil B. DeMille award right here at the Golden Globes and it is not lost on me that at this moment, there are some little girls watching as I become the first black woman to be given this same award. It is an honor—it is an honor and it is a privilege to share the evening with all of them and also with the incredible men and women who have inspired me, who challenged me, who sustained me and made my journey to this stage possible. Dennis Swanson who took a chance on me for A.M. Chicago. Saw me on the show and said to Steven Spielberg, she’s Sophia in ‘The Color Purple.’ Gayle who’s been a friend and Stedman who’s been my rock. 

I want to thank the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. We know the press is under siege these days. We also know it’s the insatiable dedication to uncovering the absolute truth that keeps us from turning a blind eye to corruption and to injustice. To—to tyrants and victims, and secrets and lies. I want to say that I value the press more than ever before as we try to navigate these complicated times, which brings me to this: what I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have. And I’m especially proud and inspired by all the women who have felt strong enough and empowered enough to speak up and share their personal stories. Each of us in this room are celebrated because of the stories that we tell, and this year we became the story. 

But it’s not just a story affecting the entertainment industry. It’s one that transcends any culture, geography, race, religion, politics, or workplace. So I want tonight to express gratitude to all the women who have endured years of abuse and assault because they, like my mother, had children to feed and bills to pay and dreams to pursue. They’re the women whose names we’ll never know. They are domestic workers and farm workers. They are working in factories and they work in restaurants and they’re in academia, engineering, medicine, and science. They’re part of the world of tech and politics and business. They’re our athletes in the Olympics and they’re our soldiers in the military. 

And there’s someone else, Recy Taylor, a name I know and I think you should know, too. In 1944, Recy Taylor was a young wife and mother walking home from a church service she’d attended in Abbeville, Alabama, when she was abducted by six armed white men, raped, and left blindfolded by the side of the road coming home from church. They threatened to kill her if she ever told anyone, but her story was reported to the NAACP where a young worker by the name of Rosa Parks became the lead investigator on her case and together they sought justice. But justice wasn’t an option in the era of Jim Crow. The men who tried to destroy her were never persecuted. Recy Taylor died ten days ago, just shy of her 98th birthday. She lived as we all have lived, too many years in a culture broken by brutally powerful men. For too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dare speak the truth to the power of those men. But their time is up. Their time is up.

Their time is up. And I just hope—I just hope that Recy Taylor died knowing that her truth, like the truth of so many other women who were tormented in those years, and even now tormented, goes marching on. It was somewhere in Rosa Parks’ heart almost 11 years later, when she made the decision to stay seated on that bus in Montgomery, and it’s here with every woman who chooses to say, “Me too.” And every man—every man who chooses to listen. 

In my career, what I’ve always tried my best to do, whether on television or through film, is to say something about how men and women really behave. To say how we experience shame, how we love and how we rage, how we fail, how we retreat, persevere, and how we overcome. I’ve interviewed and portrayed people who’ve withstood some of the ugliest things life can throw at you, but the one quality all of them seem to share is an ability to maintain hope for a brighter morning, even during our darkest nights. So I want all the girls watching here, now, to know that a new day is on the horizon! And when that new day finally dawns, it will be because of a lot of magnificent women, many of whom are right here in this room tonight, and some pretty phenomenal men, fighting hard to make sure that they become the leaders who take us to the time when nobody ever has to say ‘Me too’ again.”

#124) 2018: Year of the Story Circle

Happy New Year everyone! Lots of big things ahead for Story Circles with 3 Demo Days, the second edition of my first book, and our SXSW Interactive panel in March. It all starts next week at Texas A&M.

OBSERVERS WELCOME: Next week we’re running back to back Demo Days with Texas A&M faculty and USDA scientists. We always welcome a certain number of observers. If you’re interested, contact us.

OBSERVERS WELCOME: Next week we’re running back to back Demo Days with Texas A&M faculty and USDA scientists. We always welcome a certain number of observers. If you’re interested, contact us.


We’ve now run over 20 Demo Days and over 30 Story Circles with about half of them happening with USDA/ARS. For next week, we originally had one Demo Day scheduled but had such a large response we’ve added a second one. The total number of participants will be around 70. If you’d like to come observe just get in touch by emailing us: RandyOlsonProductions@gmail.com

This will be followed by Demo Days at the Western Sections Meeting of the Wildlife Society in February, our panel at South By Southwest Interactive in Austin in early March, then a Demo Day at University of Idaho in early April.

Also on the schedule will be the release in late March of the second edition of “Don’t Be Such A Scientist.” I’ll be starting a series of 10 blogposts here next week presenting much of the new content for the the book.

Stay tuned, it’s gonna be a big and exciting year!

SECOND EDITION, featuring 50 pages of new content including the new chapter, “Don’t Be Such A Poor Listener,” coming in late March.

SECOND EDITION, featuring 50 pages of new content including the new chapter, “Don’t Be Such A Poor Listener,” coming in late March.

#123) A Case Study of Poor Science Communication: R. Alexander Pyron’s Cuckoo Washington Post Extinction Editorial

There was a big kerfuffle last week over a Washington Post editorial by a young scientist who seemed to be arguing that extinction is no big deal. The essay inflamed the conservation biology community, producing nearly 4,000 comments in just a couple days. But before attacking the author, everyone should ask who is in charge of editing editorials at WaPo that they would publish such an overly long rambling mess? Using the basic narrative analysis technique I’ve developed, let’s take a look at how it was so poorly communicated that the author felt the need to post on his personal website an equally lengthy explanation of what he meant to say, which really only muddled it further. Whenever you have to issue a second, “What I meant to say,” statement, it means you didn’t communicate well.

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Okay, first question — since when does someone get nearly 2,000 words (1,844 to be precise) in the Washington Post to talk about extinction? Even the hottest of hot button social issues usually get only about 1,000 words or less. The New York Times, in their OpEd guidelines says, “Articles typically run from 400 to 1,200 words.”

This is the kind of stuff that makes people hate the mainstream media. It’s generally assumed that you need to have a really, really important point to justify an editorial, and that it needs to be stated clearly and CONCISELY. But then they go and print a train wreck like this?

Suffice it to say there was a firestorm of outrage over this “shootin’ from the hip” editorial. And then the author felt so misunderstood he posted his own “clarification” on his website. This is what you get with poor narrative structure.


Below you can see I’ve applied my Narrative Analysis technique to look at the overall structure of the essay. This helps you see what a logical mess it is.

Narrative Analysis involves identifying each sentence or section according to the three fundamental forces of narrative: Agreement (BLUE), Contradiction (RED), Consequence (GREEN). Great speeches and arguments do a good job of grouping these elements together and sticking to a single, clear over-arching problem to be addressed. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s is about “we were made a promise” (agreement), a century later it hasn’t been fulfilled (contradiction), so we’re gathered here today to continue the effort (consequence). You see this pattern repeated twice at the start of his speech, then in longer form for the rest of the speech.

The Gettysburg Address from Abraham Lincoln has even simpler 3 part structure. That speech is only three paragraphs, each being the respective elements. This clarity of narrative structure is the hallmark of cogent argumentation, straight out of Jerry Graff’s 2 million copy-selling textbook for the humanities, “They Say, I Say.”


So let me restate this guy’s argument in more conversational style. If he were at a cocktail party, here’s roughly what he would be saying in one paragraph.

“Okay, the problem with extinction is we can’t even be sure a species is extinct. No, wait, what I mean is that extinctions, when they happen, are trivial. And this leads to people wanting to preserve species out of blind knee jerk impulse. But saving species is trivial, because extinction is not a moral issue, it’s about how we don’t want to see anything change, but that’s pointless because things have been much worse in the past. And so the real problem is, how will we live between extinctions?”

Here’s how I derived this paragraph — by compiling all the “statements of contradiction” in his rambling discourse — meaning all the parts in red. This stuff is a little bit subjective — you might identify a few bits differently — but the general pattern is undeniable. Here’s what I got for the “statements of contradiction”:

1 EXTINCTION – Inaccuracy of extinction statements
2 EXTINCTION – Extinctions are trivia
3 EXTINCTION – Preservation is knee-jerk impulse
4 EXTINCTION – Saving species is biologically trivial
5 EXTINCTION – Extinction is not a moral issue
6 CLIMATE – We want to prevent change
7 CLIMATE – Climate has been much worse
8 EXTINCTION – But how will we live

In our Story Circles Narrative Training program we would call this classic DHY format, which stands for “Despite, However, Yet.” That means you’ve got multiple narrative threads at work in a manner so confusing that we’re on a wild goose chase going after one point after another.


So the author was young and inexperienced, as evidenced by his second effort to clarify what he said. But the more important question to ask is who in the world approved this editorial mess?

The author was so confused he ended up saying this on his website, “In the brief space of 1,900 words, I failed to make my views sufficiently clear and coherent,”

My good man, 1,900 words is not “brief” when it comes to editorials. I published an LA Times OpEd in 2002 on shifting baselines syndrome that was reprinted in three textbooks that was just over 1,000 words and probably could have stood to have been a little less. You, sir, were given an encyclopedia’s-worth of space to make your argument.


I want to thank my good friend Gary Bucciarelli of UCLA for bringing this whole brouhaha to my attention. It’s an excellent example of why narrative structure is so important. Had this fellow run through our Story Circles Narrative Training program he would have known to start with the Dobzhansky and ABT templates in crafting his over-arching argument. He would have shaped it around the singular problem-solution narrative spine, and he would have brought it full circle at the end, instead of ending with … a question?

All of that would have obviated the need for his secondary “What I meant to say” essay. Here’s the overall breakdown. You can see just at a glance what a mess it was. Which again leads back to the editor, assuming there even was one.


The text is color coded according to the three forces of narrative: Agreement (BLUE), Contradiction (RED), Consequence (GREEN).

Near midnight, during an expedition to southwestern Ecuador in December 2013, I spotted a small green frog asleep on a leaf, near a stream by the side of the road. It was Atelopus balios , the Rio Pescado stubfoot toad. Although a lone male had been spotted in 2011, no populations had been found since 1995, and it was thought to be extinct. But here it was, raised from the dead like Lazarus. My colleagues and I found several more that night, males and females, and shipped them to an amphibian ark in Quito, where they are now breeding safely in captivity.But they will go extinct one day, and the world will be none the poorer for it. Eventually, they will be replaced by a dozen or a hundred new species that evolve later.

Mass extinctions periodically wipe out up to 95 percent of all species in one fell swoop; these come every 50 million to 100 million years, and scientists agree that we are now in the middle of the sixth such extinction, this one caused primarily by humans and our effects on animal habitats. It is an “immense and hidden” tragedy to see creatures pushed out of existence by humans, lamented the Harvard entomologist E.O. Wilson, who coined the term “biodiversity” in 1985. A joint paper by several prominent researchers published by the National Academy of Sciences called it a “biological annihilation.” Pope Francis imbues the biodiversity crisis with a moral imperative (“Each creature has its own purpose,” he said in 2015), and biologists often cite an ecological one (we must avert “a dramatic decay of biodiversity and the subsequent loss of ecosystem services,” several wrote in a paper for Science Advances). “What is Conservation Biology?,” a foundational text for the field, written by Michael Soulé of the University of California at Santa Cruz, says, “Diversity of organisms is good . . . the untimely extinction of populations and species is bad . . . [and] biotic diversity has intrinsic value.” In her book “The Sixth Extinction ,” journalist Elizabeth Kolbert captures the panic all this has induced: “Such is the pain the loss of a single species causes that we’re willing to perform ultrasounds on rhinos and handjobs on crows.”

But the impulse to conserve for conservation’s sake has taken on an unthinking, unsupported, unnecessary urgency.Extinction is the engine of evolution, the mechanism by which natural selection prunes the poorly adapted and allows the hardiest to flourish. Species constantly go extinct, and every species that is alive today will one day follow suit. There is no such thing as an “endangered species,” except for all species. The only reason we should conserve biodiversity is for ourselves, to create a stable future for human beings. Yes, we have altered the environment and, in doing so, hurt other species. This seems artificial because we, unlike other life forms, use sentience and agriculture and industry.But we are a part of the biosphere just like every other creature, and our actions are just as volitional, their consequences just as natural. Conserving a species we have helped to kill off, but on which we are not directly dependent, serves to discharge our own guilt, but little else.

Climate scientists worry about how we’ve altered our planet, and they have good reasons for apprehension: Will we be able to feed ourselves? Will our water supplies dry up? Will our homes wash away? But unlike those concerns, extinction does not carry moral significance, even when we have caused it.And unless we somehow destroy every living cell on Earth, the sixth extinction will be followed by a recovery, and later a seventh extinction, and so on.Yet we are obsessed with reviving the status quo ante.The Paris Accords aim to hold the temperature to under two degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels,even though the temperature has been at least eight degrees Celsius warmer within the past 65 million years. Twenty-one thousand years ago, Boston was under an ice sheet a kilometer thick. We are near all-time lows for temperature and sea level ;whatever effort we make to maintain the current climate will eventually be overrun by the inexorable forces of space and geology. Our concern, in other words, should not be protecting the animal kingdom, which will be just fine. Within a few million years of the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs, the post-apocalyptic void had been filled by an explosion of diversity — modern mammals, birds and amphibians of all shapes and sizes.

This is how evolution proceeds: through extinction. The inevitability of death is the only constant in life, and 99.9 percent of all species that have ever lived, as many as 50 billion, have already gone extinct. In 50 million years, Europe will collide with Africa and form a new supercontinent, destroying species (think of birds, fish and anything vulnerable to invasive life forms from another landmass) by irrevocably altering their habitats. Extinctions of individual species, entire lineages and even complete ecosystems are common occurrences in the history of life. The world is no better or worse for the absence of saber-toothed tigers and dodo birds and our Neanderthal cousins, who died off as Homo sapiens evolved. (According to some studies, it’s not even clear that biodiversity is suffering. The authors of another recent National Academy of Sciences paper point out that species richness has shown no net decline among plants over 100 years across 16,000 sites examined around the world.)Conserving biodiversity should not be an end in itself;diversity can even be hazardous to human health. Infectious diseases are most prevalent and virulent in the most diverse tropical areas. Nobody donates to campaigns to save HIV, Ebola, malaria, dengue and yellow fever, but these are key components of microbial biodiversity, as unique as pandas, elephants and orangutans, all of which are ostensibly endangered thanks to human interference.
Humans should feel less shame about molding their environment to suit their survival needs. When beavers make a dam, they cause the local extinction of numerous riverine species that cannot survive in the new lake. But that new lake supports a set of species that is just as diverse. Studies have shown that when humans introduce invasive plant species, native diversity sometimes suffers, but productivity — the cycling of nutrients through the ecosystem — frequently increases. Invasives can bring other benefits, too: Plants such as the Phragmites reed have been shown to perform better at reducing coastal erosion and storing carbon than native vegetation in some areas, like the Chesapeake.

And if biodiversity is the goal of extinction fearmongers, how do they regard South Florida, where about 140 new reptile species accidentally introduced by the wildlife trade are now breeding successfully? No extinctions of native species have been recorded, and, at least anecdotally, most natives are still thriving. The ones that are endangered, such as gopher tortoises and indigo snakes , are threatened mostly by habitat destruction. Even if all the native reptiles in the Everglades, about 50, went extinct, the region would still be gaining 90 new species — a biodiversity bounty. If they can adapt and flourish there, then evolution is promoting their success. If they outcompete the natives, extinction is doing its job.There is no return to a pre-human Eden; the goals of species conservation have to be aligned with the acceptance that large numbers of animals will go extinct.

Thirty to 40 percent of species may be threatened with extinction in the near future, and their loss may be inevitable. But both the planet and humanity can probably survive or even thrive in a world with fewer species. We don’t depend on polar bears for our survival, and even if their eradication has a domino effect that eventually affects us, we will find a way to adapt. The species that we rely on for food and shelter are a tiny proportion of total biodiversity, and most humans live in — and rely on — areas of only moderate biodiversity, not the Amazon or the Congo Basin.
Developed human societies can exist and function in harmony with diverse natural communities, even if those communities are less diverse than they were before humanity. For instance, there is almost no original forest in the eastern United States. Nearly every square inch was clear-cut for timber by the turn of the 20th century. The verdant wilderness we see now in the Catskills, Shenandoah and the Great Smoky Mountains has all grown back in the past 100 years or so, with very few extinctions or permanent losses of biodiversity (14 total east of the Mississippi River, counting species recorded in history that are now apparently extinct), even as the population of our country has quadrupled. Japan is one of the most densely populated and densely forested nations in the world. A model like that can serve a large portion of the planet, while letting humanity grow and shape its own future.

If climate change and extinction present problems, the problems stem from the drastic effects they will have on us. A billion climate refugees, widespread famines, collapsed global industries, and the pain and suffering of our kin demand attention to ecology and imbue conservation with a moral imperative. A global temperature increase of two degrees Celsius will supposedly raise seas by 0.2 to 0.4 meters, with no effect on vast segments of the continents and most terrestrial biodiversity. But this is enough to flood most coastal cities, and that matters. We should do this to create a stable, equitable future for the coming billions of people, not for the vanishing northern river shark. Conservation is needed for ourselves and only ourselves. All those future people deserve a happy, safe life on an ecologically robust planet, regardless of the state of the natural world compared with its pre-human condition. We cannot thrive without crops or pollinators, or along coastlines as sea levels rise and as storms and flooding intensify.

Yet that robust planet will still erase huge swaths of animal and plant life. Even if we live as sustainably as we can, many creatures will die off, and alien species will disrupt formerly “pristine” native ecosystems. The sixth extinction is ongoing and inevitable — and Earth’s long-term recovery is guaranteed by history (though the process will be slow). Invasion and extinction are the regenerative and rejuvenating mechanisms of evolution, the engines of biodiversity.If this means fewer dazzling species, fewer unspoiled forests, less untamed wilderness, so be it. They will return in time. The Tree of Life will continue branching, even if we prune it back.The question is: How will we live in the meantime?


One last comment here, which is my critique of the article based just on the content of what he said. The biggest thing he fails to address is one key word: time. That’s the wrench in the works of all this stuff. The current wave of extinctions is happening at an unprecedentedly rapid rate. That’s the real problem. If species slowly go extinct over the course of millions of years or even hundreds of thousands of years or even thousands of years, ecosystems can presumably re-shuffle themselves. But this extinction is happening over hundreds of years.

I found a rebuttal blogpost that had a comment to this very point. It said, “Post-extinction recovery of biodiversity takes millions, if not 10’s of millions of years.” That’s the problem.

#122) Tough News for Science Education: Communication Training for Grad Students not the Same as for Research Scientists

“Of course it isn’t,” most faculty would say to the statement above, but do they know how and why it’s not the same? What we’re learning through Story Circles Narrative Training is telling us volumes.

Story Circles Kits

Story Circles: Why so popular with research scientists but not graduate students?


We’ve now had three years of development for our Story Circles Narrative Training program which has involved well over 1,000 scientists and communicators. We started with four prototype circles in 2015: undergrad, grad, postdoc, research scientists (conducted with USDA, NIH, Univ of Chicago and Hendrix University). The differences were evident from the very first meeting of each group.

The participants in three of the prototype circles (undergrad, grad, postdoc) were curious and willing to do as asked, but overall, fairly hesitant. The members of the last group — 5 research scientists at USDA/ARS — within minutes after hearing about the ABT Framework began talking about all the different applications they could think for it. They jumped in with an enthusiasm reflected by Cathleen Hapeman of USDA/ARS who tells about that first Story Circle at USDA in the new video we will be releasing with AAAS. The rest is history as USDA is now approaching 15 Story Circles and a dozen Demo Days.

Back then we thought that was just kind of interesting. Now we realize it’s fundamental to all communication training — the difference that previous experience makes.

Story Circles is very challenging. One of the participants in a Story Circle at Genentech said, “It’s powerful training, but the hour sessions are like eating your Brussels Sprouts.”

We’ve come to realize you need to be solidly motivated for the training to work. What this means is that the participants must have either a WANT (I’ve heard about this program and I want to do it) or a NEED (we know we need help with narrative).

In fact, the one major modification we made after the prototypes was to split the training into two stages — first, the one day Demo Day where everyone learns what they will be signing up for, then the actual Story Circles training of 10 one hour sessions. The Demo Day is the weeding out that makes sure the participants in the Story Circles are sufficiently motivated since they are signing up on their own, not being required to do it (we’ve learned you can’t force this stuff on people).

The result of this two stage process is that, of nearly 30 Story Circles to date, no one has quit before completing all ten sessions (with the one exception of a graduate student who felt he learned everything on the first day when he heard the three words of and, but, therefore — literally — and eventually quit).


Has the science world thought deeply about this simple question? We can tell you one huge difference — experience. It turns out experience makes a huge difference in both focus and motivation when it comes to communication.

Think about it in terms of the fundamental couplet of “arouse and fulfill,” that I cited in the first chapter of, “Don’t Be Such a Scientist.” (2nd edition coming out in March from Island Press!) What you get with graduate students is a shortage of arousal when it comes to communications training.

Most are told they need it. They do the best they can in trying to follow what is being said, but they have limited experience in the real world. This means for something like Story Circles they are mostly plowing forward based on little more than blind trust — sort of like, “I don’t see how this relates to what I want to do someday, but if you say I should do it, I’ll do it.”

In contrast, the research scientists — as we’ve seen from that first prototype group — have plenty of experience in the real world. They have taken part in, or at least watched, major projects fail to have much impact because their results were so poorly communicated. By the time we start working with them they are aware of what it means for a project to have “lacked a clear narrative.” That’s what experience brings.


Yep. We’ve heard it from grad students. Many have said, “We got it — three words: and, but, therefore — all set.” At one university 50 grad students took part in the Demo Day. Of them, 26 signed up to do Story Circles, but a week later when the organizer tried to assemble the first circle, it turned out there were only 4 who really felt it was worth their time. The others said they mostly signed up just to lend their vote of support, but didn’t really see the need.

The same happened two weeks later at another university with 38 grad students in the Demo Day. At another university there were 19 grad students signed up for the Demo Day. I gave my talk on the ABT the day before. When it came time for the 3-hour “hands on” part of the Demo Day, not one of the grad students showed up (though 3 faculty did). The organizer said she spoke with some of the students after my talk — they felt like they “got it” on the ABT thing and didn’t need anything further.

This is all in contrast, for example, to the National Park Service staff in Colorado.  They had 56 people in two Demo Days out of which came the 32 participants in the 6 Story Circles we ran this summer.  It was completely optional for them.  Almost all everyone wanted to do it — most of the others couldn’t work it in their schedules yet.


I don’t blame grad students for not wanting to do Story Circles. Back when I was doing my PhD in biology I wouldn’t have had much interest in this stuff.

The more I have honed in on the problem/solution dynamic that lies at the core of narrative, the more I’ve come to realize how often smart people provide solutions to people who don’t know they have a problem. Imagine being told, “We’ve got a solution for you!” but thinking, “I didn’t know I had a problem.” Guess what happens when people do this. Here’s an example from the real world of conservation biology.

Three years ago the conservation groups in the state of North Dakota engaged in a huge and expensive exercise that proved to be exactly this. They created a state ballot initiative to “fix” the state’s conservation problems. It failed horrendously (20% supporting votes versus 80% opposing votes). I was brought in by a group to assess their communications work on it.

After a week of driving around the state conducting interviews I came to a simple conclusion — most people in North Dakota don’t think there’s any problem with their nature and wildlife resources. In fact, they feel blessed with an abundance. They looked at the ballot initiative and just said, “Why?”

So there you go. It’s hard to get people to work on a problem they don’t personally feel they have. That’s what we’ve run into with Story Circles with graduate students, repeatedly. Research scientists tend to know they need help with narrative based on their experiences, but graduate students just don’t feel the need for help … yet.

We’re continuing to work on it and study it. It’s not that graduate students are lazy or have bad attitudes, it’s just that they are swamped — getting better at narrative is not a perceived priority.


Because what we are doing is systematic. This is not a different bunch of lectures and exercises with various one day workshops. To the contrary, Story Circles is almost cookie cutter in it’s rigidity and consistency. All groups that do the 10 one hour sessions go through the same structured one hour time course with each session. We’ve changed almost nothing about the training for three years now.

The result is sort of like a controlled experiment. Everything is held constant between groups except the composition of the participants. If we had some sort of accurate metric (and we don’t — that’s a whole other discussion — narrative doesn’t lend itself to any simple, immediate measurements — if you think it does, you don’t understand it) we could probably quantify this difference between these two big groups.

For now, we can simply see it in the different way Story Circles works (and doesn’t work) with them.


Yes, this is of course an exaggeration. I’m getting a reputation as being an overly simplistic reductionist (thank you very much!).

There are lots of grad students who do get it and work as hard in the sessions as research scientists. The students themselves are not the problem. The problem is simply TIME and EXPERIENCE. Telling students, “You’ll thank us for this some day!” and hope that will motivate them to do the hard work is not enough.

Make no mistake, communication is challenging. You get back what you put in. There are no magic bullets, and even the almighty ABT Narrative Template is only as powerful as you what you get back from it by putting it to use repeatedly. This is the whole philosophy that underpins Story Circles.

But the bottom line is that you gotta go to the gym and lift weights, even if its boring, repetitive and stinks like Brussels Sprouts sometimes.

#121) Democrats: When will they ever learn (to MESSAGE)

Why is this so consistent, universal, and unchanged? A Republican strategist points out, once again, that Democrats don’t know how to fit their argument onto a bumper sticker. Or t-shirt, as I had fun with a decade ago in this clip that never made it into “Flock of Dodos.”

Of course we’ve got a t-shirt!


One of the best rules of our Story Circles Narrative Training program is that the timing video that runs throughout the hour session is sacred. When you hear the audio cue go off, you have to stop what you’re saying to the group, mid-sentence.

This drives many scientists CRAZY. Being perfectionists, they want to finish their thought. But they can’t. The group turns on them with smiles, saying, “That’s it, gotta move on.” It’s a great exercise to help people deal with the need to not be a perfectionist when it comes to communication — you gotta do your best then keep moving. “Hang on,” is not an option in the real world.


This need to say EVERYTHING is the bane of Democrats. They can’t help themselves. They have so many great idea. It was the downfall of Hillary Clinton. She ran a campaign with no clear single message, but heaps and heaps of things to say. Trump just had one simple minded thing — #MAGA.

Sadly, here’s a Fox News article pointing out the same thing. It says, “The problem with the argument that Democrats are making,” said Republican strategist Evan Siegfried in a devastatingly perceptive segment on Outnumbered Overtime last month, “is that the argument takes longer than a bumper-sticker slogan to make.”

It’s endless. And ultimately cured by three letters: ABT.