Cognitive Daily

i-97c6c8fa598684dc66aaa83476da3d7b-Dawkins.jpgDo you recognize this man? If so, you’re not alone: over three-quarters of our readers were able to spot Richard Dawkins as he flashed by in a QuickTime video. So does this mean that the gatekeepers at Expelled who ejected the much-less-famous PZ Myers but not Dawkins two weeks ago are a bunch of incompetent oafs?

Not necessarily.

Many of those participating in the study came via Greg Laden’s post on the subject, which included jumbo-sized pictures of both Dawkins and Myers. Maybe they had an unfair advantage over the harried gatekeepers for Expelled, who didn’t have photos as a reference — though it should be noted they did have Dawkins’ larger-than-life image in the film itself.

Fortunately our study included some controls that may be able to help establish just how big a gaffe was committed that night. Viewers saw one of two different movies, which I’ll show you again below (QuickTime required):

Movie 1

Movie 2

Both movies feature an assortment of Davidson college professors (presumably somewhat less famous than Dawkins), intermixed with a few others who have gotten quite a bit of notice in the national media:

Movie 1 Movie 2
Richard Dawkins P.Z. Myers
Michael Behe William Dembski
Hayden Panettiere George Clooney
John Grisham John Grisham

As I said, three-quarters of those who saw Movie 1 said they saw Dawkins, but they may have had an unfair advantage. Here’s how they faired spotting the other notables who were in that movie:


Barely a quarter of those viewing the movie spotted tabloid darling Hayden Panettiere, and only 16 percent recognized legal thriller author John Grisham. Michael Behe, arguably the person who holds the opponent role to Dawkins in the evolution/intelligent design war, was only spotted by 16 percent of viewers. Indeed, nearly as many people (12 percent) thought they saw the absent P.Z. Myers in the first video than recognized Behe!

So what about the second video? Here are those results:


Viewers were relatively successful spotting Myers, but movie and TV megastar George Clooney was recognized by a whopping 88 percent of viewers. Just 8 percent spotted anti-evolutionist William Dembski.

Of course, some of these people aren’t as famous as others. Maybe the relative levels of fame explain the disparity in recognition levels. Since we also asked viewers to rate each person for how well-known they are, we can plot that against the portion of time they were recognized:


The general trend of more-famous people being better-recognized seems to hold, but there are some interesting divergences. While Dawkins and Grisham’s fame levels aren’t much different among survey participants, Dawkins’ photo was recognized much more readily. Hayden Panettiere had a comparable level of fame to Myers, but again she was much less recognized by our respondents. This suggests that our readers did indeed have an advantage by being prompted in advance that they’d be looking for Myers and Dawkins, or from having recently seen their pictures.

There’s one more possible explanation of our results: people who believe a particular person is famous are more likely to recognize that person. So here’s a graph that does two things. First, it only considers viewers who rated each famous person a 6 or 7 on our 7-point fame scale. Second, it subtracts out false-positive responses, when viewers thought they saw a person who wasn’t there. Here are those results:


So, readers who rated Dawkins and Myers as very well-known were very likely to recognize them. Similarly, those rating Panettiere as very well-known were likely to recognize her. But among those rating Grisham as very well-known, only about 19 percent actually spotted his picture. Why? I’d submit that Grisham’s name is well-known, but as a novelist, we don’t actually see his picture that often. Panettiere is a movie and TV star, so if we watch the shows she’s in, we see her face all the time.

Why are Dawkins and Myers so recognizable? There are a couple possibilities. It might be that viewers were prompted to look for them. It might be that they had just seen Dawkins’s and Myers’ photos due to the recent controversy. Or it might be that internet fame of the sort that Dawkins and Myers possess is more like being a TV or movie star than being a novelist. Every time you visit Dawkins’ or Myers’ web site, you see their pictures. While you might see Grisham’s books every day in the grocery store, his picture isn’t on the front cover.

One final point: Note that readers were quite inaccurate in spotting the anti-evolutionists Behe and Dembski. Even though Myers often rails against Behe and Dembski on his blog, readers sympathetic to Myers still don’t appear to know what they look like. Perhaps the same phenomenon applies to the people screening for anti-evolution films. They might recognize the Myers and Dawkins are “enemies,” but they may not have had much opportunity to see what their enemies look like.

So pro-evolutionists may not have much ground to stand on when they claim that anti-evolutionists were ignorant for not being able to recognize their enemies. After all, pro-evolutionists aren’t very good at it either.


  1. #1 muhr
    April 4, 2008

    You have the clips mixed up, Behe is in 1 and Dembski is in 2.

  2. #2 Coturnix
    April 4, 2008

    Never heard of Hayden Panettiere, or would know how he/she looks like.

    Grisham – know the name very well, but not the face.

    Behe and Dembski, know the faces only because I am a scienceblogger, otherwise would not (but probably would be familiar with names).

    Clooney – impossible not to recognize.

    Dawkins – familiar probably because I am science blogger.

    PZ Myers – I met the guy twice…

  3. #3 Sigmund
    April 4, 2008

    Why are the movies set to run at differing speeds?
    The second movie (which actually contains Dembski – you’ve got that wrong) runs at a different speed every time I play it and each time one image – Dembski’s – flashes by much quicker than any of the others. The only way I can recognise him (and I’m quite aware what he looks like) is through pausing the movie and manually forwarding it till it gets to the Dembski picture.

  4. #4 Dave Munger
    April 4, 2008

    Oops! Sorry, I don’t have time to fix the data right now, but you’re all absolutely right — I’ve flipped Behe and Dembski.

  5. #5 Dave Munger
    April 5, 2008

    Okay, I’ve fixed the graphs and text — sorry about that. The same conclusions hold (and the fact that I can’t recognize Behe or Dembski perhaps reinforces my point).

    Sigmund: I’ve checked the movies and did not find any difference between the two. Each movie plays at 2 frames per second and each photo has one frame, so Dembski is seen just as long as the rest. Perhaps the stutter on your computer is due to some problem with your individual system.

  6. #6 Coyote
    April 5, 2008

    The producers of Expelled also were prompted with pictures of both Dawkins and Myers when they had to repeatedly edit in Nazi imagery into their interviews. They should have scored higher.

  7. #7 D'Oh!
    April 5, 2008

    For what it is worth, I have the same problem as Sigmund on my computer. Dembski’s photo flashes by so fast that sometimes I’m not even aware there was a photo there.

  8. #8 Dave Munger
    April 5, 2008

    Very strange. Now I’m getting the same problem with the Dembski photo on my computer when I view it using Firefox. It works fine with Safari or played directly in QuickTime, but it doesn’t work in Firefox. I suppose it could be a problem with the QuickTime plugin for Firefox.

    That could certainly explain why more people thought they saw Dembski in Movie 1 (where he wasn’t present) than Movie 2.

  9. #9 Freiddie
    April 6, 2008

    Looks like the QuickTime plugin for Firefox is buggy.

  10. #10 zer0
    April 11, 2008

    First time poster, love your blog… it’s part of my daily reading, you always have something tantalizing to read about. My question is, would it also be a good control to change the order of the faces? I remember seeing the first film when I participated, and actually I think I’m part of they 12% that thought I saw PZ Myers as well, but I noticed in the second film that when George Clooney’s face pops up third, after two unknown faces (to me) it really gives me a jolt. I can’t help but think “Oh, I just saw George Clooney” for the next few faces. I’m wondering the position of the “recognizable” faces would alter the outcome much.

    I also had the issue with Dembski in the 2nd film, firefox quicktime is a bit a wonky I suppose.

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