Fast, Expensive and Excellent

Yes, of course, it’s true. P3 is just another fast, cheap and not quite excellent but sometimes pretty good website. I think it’s far from obvious what excellent is, and in my opinion Randy Olson hasn’t proven that he has a good grasp on it any more than the rest of us.

But he raises good points:

Good communicators don’t need hope

The coral reef listservs and blogs lit up with impassioned analysis of Bradbury’s dire message.  In the end, the scientists locked on to the tone of “hopelessness” in his essay, using that to dismiss it — saying his effort was no good because there is this blanket rule that, “You have to give people hope.”  He violated that rule, therefore he didn’t know what he was doing and was no help in the efforts to save coral reefs.
If only communication were as simple as a set of air tight rules. … there are some general rules, but nothing air tight.  In general you want to cut on action and not cross the proscenium line, but … when you look at the films of the truly gifted and creative filmmakers, they break all the rules.

How do you make ocean acidification as compelling as the Kardashians???

I’ve run through this before, but this is another case that it applies to. In Hollywood, when you go to your production designer on the set of a movie and say, “I want you to build me the Oval Office,” your production designer will usually reply with, “Okay, good, fast or cheap — pick two. I can make it good and fast, but it’s going to cost you a fortune, I can make it good and cheap, but it’s going to take a few months as I try to recruit friends to donate resources for free, or I can make it for you overnight and for nothing, but you’re gonna have to use your imagination because it ain’t gonna look very good.”

That’s the real world. And the science world, where “fast and cheap” usually rules when it comes to communication (or even slow and cheap!). I know. I was a scientist. Plus I just spoke at a major science meeting (which was a great session, but) where they not only didn’t pay me, they held the meeting in a room with a tiny screen (one third of the size it should have been, using the general rule of thumb they taught us in film school of one inch of screen width per viewer), no speakers for video clips (I had to hold the microphone to my laptop speaker), and no wireless microphone for the presenter. That, to me, is a giant statement of, “We really don’t give a crap if anyone can hear or see you, just show up and do your dog and pony show, whatever.” That’s the science world for you.

You want to know how to make the topic of ocean acidification compete with the Kardashians? Choose fast, expensive and excellent. The environmental movement is overflowing with funding (just look at last year’s Climate Shift report), and the problem is going to be around for a long time. But if the approach continues to be fast and cheap, don’t expect anyone to take much interest. Until, of course, there’s a major crisis. And then it’s too late. Ho hum.

Olson goes so far as to call “An Inconvenient Truth” fast and cheap. I never thought of it that way but he has a point.

(Remind me to talk about the culture gap between science and public television some time.)


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