Home Forums Circularity RANDY OLSON: SESSION 7: “The ABT in Science” – Overall thoughts

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    Randy Olson
    Randy Olson

    In my presentation did a lot of criticizing of the IPCC “Summary for Policymaker” section — specifically the articles by Sterman (2008) in Science and Tollefson (2015) in Nature.  But here was something nice in 2018 — a section added to the Climate Outreach Handbook for IPCC Authors that presented the basics of the ABT Template:


    Here’s a few answer to questions:

    CHRISTINA DORADO: You have said that you need at least 500 characters for good narrative structure but I am pretty sure we should not be trying to use ABT every 500 characters. Do you have any guidance on how and when to start to elongate the A, the B and the T for example in a scientific article?

    Hi Christina –  I’ve been meaning to get to this.  People often ask how do we use the ABT structure beyond a single paragraph, which I think is what you’re pointing to with the word “elongate.”

    I don’t have any immediate great examples from the science world (on the whole, science folks just aren’t that great at communication), but here’s one from the political world.  In 2018 Oprah Winfrey gave a tremendous speech at the Golden Globe Awards that overnight was hailed as a masterpiece.

    A friend sent me the transcript, I did my usual narrative nerd thing of breaking it down in terms of the powers at work.  When you step and look at it you see the basic pattern of repeating ABT’s.  She had an overall ABT, and then smaller scale ABT’s within it.

    I did a blogpost that showed my narrative nerd side in calling it “nested ABT’s.”   The next day the New York Times showed the difference between us by calling it, “a story made of stories.”  Which made me want to say, “Um … yeah, what they said.”

    And that’s what you ultimately want — to tell an over-arching story that is made up of smaller scale stories.  That’s the dream scenario.

    Here was my detailed analysis of it:  http://scienceneedsstory.com/2018/01/08/125-oprah-gives-an-abt-tour-de-force/

    ELIZABETH STULBERG: I think the If/Then idea is powerful, especially in science writing. I’ve been trying to incorporate it into my writing for the last week or so, but I can’t square the IF in my ABTs with the BUT because then where does the THEN go?

    Hi Elizabeth –  As I’ve mentioned, it’s only about 6 weeks since Marissa Metz and I stumbled upon the potential power of the IF/THEN clause, so we’re still trying to figure it out ourselves.  But what I’ve encountered so far is that it sometimes works best in the “A” part of the ABT, but then sometimes works better in the “B” part.

    For example, “We’re working on this system and IF we can figure out X THEN we’ll be able to do Y, BUT so far …”

    Or, “We’re working on this system and it’s really important, BUT we can’t get it to work and IF we don’t by the end of the year THEN we’re going to lose our funding, THEREFORE …”

    Lots of possibilities I think.

    MARISSA METZ:   There’s been a lot of emphasis on increasing our but/and ratio, but at what point does our work tip from a good amount of buts to DHY?

    Hi Marissa, great and logical question.  I think your overall goal is exactly this — to have the maximum number of BUTs without slipping into DHY land.   This is presumably where a good editor comes in.  There’s only a handful of speeches I’ve found that score over 30.  Every one of them is powerful and memorable.  But I bet every one of them also had a good editor.

    And by the way, look at the other end of the spectrum.  President George W. Bush gave 7 State of the Union speeches.  His scores for them were (honest to goodness): 4, 2, 3, 4, 5, 4, 4.   How in the world does a guy manage to do that.  Year after year, almost never using the word “but.”  And never speaking a single memorable word, other than, “They misunderestimated me” (I used to have a refrigerator magnet of him saying that).

    EVELYN WRIGHT:  Is that paper available online to read?  (THE IMRAD PAPER)

    Evelyn!  So glad you asked!  Yes, here it is — have fun reading it!


    MOLLY LOCKHART:  The ABT narrative format is more effective than the boring AAA format. However, in your experience, are there repercussions to avoiding the “expected” AAA format when communicating with traditional academics? Essentially: is it risky for an early-career scientist to “challenge the status quo” and use ABT format in scenarios where peer review/funding depends on it?

    MARISSA METZ:  Molly-I’ve been wondering the same thing. Seems that you can count on an “inner circle” much more during a paper review, but less so during, say a defense.

    Hi Molly and Marissa –  This is a fairly painful question.  Mike Strauss and Rick Nelson can both tell you tales of this — of higher level program directors being suspicious of ABT style communication.  But this is really their problem/flaw/shortcoming.  Every scientist should know about Nobel Laureate P.B. Medawar’s famous essay in the 1960’s where he asked, “Is the scientific paper a fraud?”  He was addressing this problem directly.  Here’s a good essay on it:


    LIANNE ALLEN-JACOBSON:  Question/Comment for Randy: My favorite movies are really convoluted- they are often puzzles that switch between times/point of views. I also tend to write with DHY. I wonder if you surveyed scientists (or writers in general) if you would see a correlation between movie prefrence and writing style?

    Hi Lianne (and Marky Mark Patterson) –  For starters, a couple years ago I had lunch with Dave Roberts who is a great and very smart writer for the online publication Vox.  He was a philosophy major.  I explained to him the Narrative Spectrum.  He immediately pointed to DHY and said, “That’s me.”

    Which is what you get with very cerebral folks — both the tendency to think/communicate with DHY, but also to be drawn to that sort of communication. But the goal is to be “bilingual.”  To be able to do both.  I’m not certain anyone can, but it’s at least worth striving for.

    ALBERTHA JOSEPH-ALEXANDER: Randy – Can the ABT narrative then be incorporated within the larger IMRAD in terms of the clarity of how the results/ discussions are presented?

    JULIE CLAUSSEN:  Randy to clarify – You use ABT structure within the IMRAD template for Introduction and Discussion?

    Albertha and Julie –  I like to say ABT stands for “Always Be Telling stories,” which means always at least be pushing to see if you can find a narrative form to everything which works.  Should EVERYTHING be ABT?  Probably not EVERYTHING.

    It’s kind of parallel to the South Park guys with their Rule of Replacing.  What they say is they go back through the script and, “everywhere that we CAN replace and AND with a BUT or a THEREFORE we do, which makes the storytelling better.”

    Notice the key word is “CAN.”  They don’t say to replace everything.  They say only where it works.  Same thing for using ABT in methods and results — yes, if it works, it’s better, but sometimes it doesn’t work so you CANnot.

    TANYA WILKINS:  I love that comparison to this being art … I have had a lof of feedback wanting ALL the rules, exactly the process to communicate effectively … I try to explain that a lot of this is organic and based on the research itself. “How is this advancing the narrative?” – great question to keep asking yourself.

    Hi Tanya –  You’re maybe beginning to see the source of my title, “Narrative is Everything,” for my last book.  Notice what Vogler says in that Preface I sent you — that the Heroes Journey draws on not just the work of Joseph Campbell, but also Carl Jung who is one of the founders of the entire field of psychology.  It’s very, very deep.

    And so towards that end, think of the idea of “advancing the narrative” of your own life.  It’s deep in the psyche — the desire to feel like you’re making some sort of progress in life.  Which then leads you to think of all the people suffering right now from the economic consequences of the pandemic — that the narrative of their life has been derailed.  You start to realize how deep this thing is hitting all of humanity.

    ELIZABETH STULBERG:  I would love to have copies of all these chat transcripts. I seem to have missed the ones at the beginning of the course – are they still available somewhere?

    Hello again Elizabeth — Good question — I think Matt will work on assembling them somewhere, for posterity.