Despite the fact that the producers of Expelled! have the most nefarious of motives in mind, and that we can expect more from them (we are waiting for the other shoe to drop), it is interesting to note how many conversations this documentary about Intelligent Design Creationism has sparked. Ultimately, the intended purpose of Expelled! is to silence real scientists and set back scientific research that is on the verge of filling one of the most important “gaps” in which the Christian God of the theistic evolutionist currently lives. In the long run, conversations that arise from movies like Expelled! will help us fill those gaps more quickly.
What the heck am I talking about?
The gap I’m referring to is the area in which it is quite possible, even common, to point to a life system and say two things about it: a) wow, is that complex!; and b) there are several things we don’t understand about what is going on here.
The fossil record, gross anatomy, biogeography, population genetics, and taxonomy/cladistics are areas of life science study that do not really fall into this category, even though they have these characteristics. We can look at patterns of phylogeny (the evolutionary relationships among organisms) and biogeography (the ecological-spatial distribution, and history of that distribution, among organisms) and see complex patterns, and these are systems that we do not fully understand, and which lack the comprehensive explanatory models that we seek. But we do understand a lot of how this works, and our explanatory models are powerful, if imperfect. Most importantly, though, these systems have a kind of visibility that makes them easy to relate to. We can study everything from global geography to population genetics with tools that are readily available and accessible to many, including maps, binoculars, and the kind of lab bench equipment that is now common even in high school biology labs.
You will notice that these large scale, or at least very assessable, systems are rarely (or never) mentioned by Intelligent Design proponents. Rather, IDiots focus on the very-tiny. How blood clots and how a flagellum works are classic examples. Understanding these systems requires inspection of processes that can only be fully understood by examining the nature of atom-level (where the atoms are arranged in specific molecules) interactions. Not only are these processes too small to see (in a normal human sense) even with a powerful microscope, but they are conceptually other-world like. At this scale processes that humans can relate to are typically irrelevant. We can intuitively understand, because of our life experience, gravity as a force. We “get” mechanical adherence between objects (things being tied or tangled together as opposed to, say, hydrogen bonds) as the usual way things are stuck together. Magnetism is not entirely out of range for pedestrian conversation. Sound and heat are palpable.
But, at the tiniest sub cellular level, normal humans (as opposed to specialized scientists) can’t see what is going on and can’t conceptually relate to what is going on. And it is all very complex.
It has become axiomatic that scientists are lousy communicators. The degree to which this is really true varies, but the degree to which is has to be true is, in my view, very small. We don’t need all scientists to be excellent communicators. We just need some excellent communicators.
However, for some reason, excellent communicators seem to have been more common in certain areas of science to the virtual exclusion of others. For example, Carl Sagan in Astronomy and Richard Feynman in quantum physics were excellent communicators in the physical science (we can quickly add Isaac Asimov). Between them, their engaging and widely devoured science story telling and explanation bracket the vast scales of spacetime. In the past, religious and mystical descriptions of and entanglement with the natural world, in many cultures, typically involved both astronomy and the basic physical forces of nature. This is not true today, and in fact, we rely on nuclear physics for many things, yet at the basic level, there are things that are not fully understood. Today, we can describe the age of the galaxies and the processes of star formation, while in the past the dots gracing the night sky were linked, variously, to origin myths, apocalypse stories, or the activities of the gods. Heaven (in some religions) is in the vast unknowable sky, and the daemons inhabit and manipulate the day to day forces of electricity and gravity. In the modern world, we understand these things for what they are and they are not the subject of religious rhetoric any more, at least at the mechanistic level.
Yes, Young Earth Creationists reject things like nuclear physics and will tell you that Einstein is wrong (these are conveniences to avoid the realities of dating methods using radioactive isotopes) but even among creationists, the YEC’s are seen as medieval. The modern Intelligent Design movement largely avoids cosmology and particle physics, except to the extent that things like the Big Bang theory match their expectations.
In other words, the gap in the sky and the gap in the basic physical forces, where the spirits and gods used to comfortably reside, have been very nearly closed. More importantly, these gaps were not closed by scientists understanding these things and telling everyone else “OK, we get it now. Nothing to see here, move along here.” No. These gaps were filled by scientists understanding these things together with communicators like Sagan, Asimov and Feynman engaging a couple of decades of young people, interested adults, and teachers with mind-riveting yet fully comprehensible conversations.
The modern Intelligent Design proponents focus on sub-cellular biology because this is still very much a frontier of science, because the questions being addressed and that are most intractable involve atomic/molecular activities (and structure) that can only be visualized indirectly and for which process is still largely hypothetical, which require conceptual tools with which the average person is not equipped, and to which no great communicator has yet attached her or himself.
Expelled! may force the issue and generate interest in filling this gap. I refer here to the gap in communication … the gap in research is already of great interest to scientists!
Another conversation enlivened by Expelled! is about how scientists communicate (not just that they do or do not in a particular subfield). This ranges from issues of the meaning of authority, identity and anonymous writing, to how science interfaces with Hollywood. When Randy Olson’s Flock of Dodos (an excellent film) came out, I don’t remember there being any discussion of how to measure the success of a documentary film. Yes, I remember having a conversation with the producer of that film, and many email exchanges with Randy, about getting the film out there and what that involved, but there was not a widespread public discussion about the nature of success in the context of science documentaries.
But with Expelled! there is such a conversation. At first glance, this conversation seems like a useless, rather petty set of arguments over who knows what about the film industry. But I foresee this conversation evolving to one about documentary films more broadly, their funding, promotion, and distribution. For the first time that I know of, the growing power of the Blogosphere has been brought into play regarding a documentary film. (I imagine this has happened before, but on a much smaller scale.) About a month ago, an event of widespread interest relating to this film occurred … PZ Myers’ expulsion from a screening of the film (see this and this) occurred. Over the last month and three days, I estimate that several hundred thousand people have read several dozen blog posts about this film, all these posts written by scientists or people closely involved in science practice or communication. Because of this blogospheric discussion, there has been a measurable shift of interest, with more individuals engaged in this conversation, many likely to say engaged. This conversation about Expelled! and Hollywood is going to change the nature of documentary filmography. At least a little.
All we need now is someone who can engagingly explain in an understandable and scientifically accurate way the relationship between sarcoplasmic reticulum, SIRCA activity, and reverse phosphorylation, at the molecular level. Cure heart disease and get an International Best Seller at the same time!