The Loom

Hipster Dodos

Randy Olson, who sparked a massive discussion here a couple weeks ago in connection to his movie, Flock of Dodos and how to explain evolution, sends an update:

Hello Carl –

Big news here — the official World Premiere of “Flock of Dodos: the evolution-intelligent design circus,” will be at Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Film Festival on the evening of Sunday, April 30 in New York City, followed by three more screenings during the following days. We will have details on our website next week on how to get tickets. Here’s the Tribeca announcement:

Now before P.Z. Myers and everyone else recoils with, “Oh, no, Robert De Niro’s festival — now he’s REALLY gone Hollywood,” I want to clarify one detail.

Your review of the advance screening at Yale on Feb. 13 produced a wonderful round of discussion on at least eight evolution blogs. And quite a few evolutionists took issue with some of my ten suggestions for improving the communication of evolution. Probably the biggest misperception of what I said was the confusion between “concision” (what I am advocating) and “dumbing down,” (which is rightfully the fear of all good evolutionists).

Concision is the essence of effective mass communication, and its not as simple as dumbing down. Think of it as being similar to solving a mathematical proof. The mathematical clod (like myself) takes 100 steps to make the proof. The skilled mathematician achieves the same proof in three steps. And therein lies the beauty and even art of great mathematics. Its all about simplicity.

Simiarly, the communications clod takes twenty minutes to explain something. The skilled communicator takes three minutes to explain the same thing. And I mean EXACTLY the same thing. And therein lies the beauty of great communication.

Some people are naturally better than others at communication, but everyone can get better by raising it up as a higher priority. I have given sloppy. poorly thought out and unrehearsed talks as a scientist, and I have given carefully structured, concise, well rehearsed talks as a scientist. The former were all very easy. The latter took a lot of work and a prioritization of almost as much effort in the communicating of the science as in the doing of the research.

Its not clear how much the research environment has changed over the past thirty years. But what is undeniable is that the communication environment has changed drastically. And this is the central point of my film. So at the risk of annoying a lot of very nice scientists (like P.Z. Myers), I look forward to continuing this discussion over the upcoming year. And hopefully see you all at Tribeca.

– Randy Olson


  1. #1 Dave Rintoul
    March 17, 2006

    I viewed the movie yesterday at a screening in the Little Apple, Manhattan KS. I won’t be at Tribeca, alas. The film was entertaining, but not as much as the panel discussion afterward. The highlight was watching the righteous indignation of KS Board of Education member Sue Gamble, who took panel member (and movie star) Jack Cashill to task for playing a bit fast and loose with the facts about her campaign and election to the board. That was priceless, and probably overdue!

    But after seeing the movie, and listening to Randy and the other panelists discuss all the problems with science education, and how scientists are lousy communicators, and what we need to do to drag our efforts into line with the “everything is different now” realities of the new communcation era, etc. etc. I’m still not convinced that this movie is a good strategy.

    There can be legitimate disagreements over strategy, I hope. Personally I draw the line at any strategy that engages ID as if it is equal to any sort of science, or even equal to astrology. That is the turf that the DI and the “teach the controversy” folks drew up for themselves, and there is a reason for that. It legitimizes them immediately. Madison Avenue and Hollywood gimmicks can be used, but not if they grant the IDiots this legitimacy before engaging them in the battle. I think that Randy’s movie, starting with the title, grants them that legitimacy. But we’re not selling cereal; the analogy that we must treat the American public as “consumers” of everything and anything is seriously appalling when you apply it to truth vs. lies.

    Will Rogers said it best 70 years or so ago:
    “There’s only one thing that can kill the movies, and that’s education.”

  2. #2 Diego
    March 17, 2006

    I attended a screening in Tallahassee this week. I was most impressed with the humor and humanity that Randy Olsen brings to his film. I agree with much of his premise about the importance of communication, but am still digesting some of his more specific criticisms and have yet to formulate an opinion on them.

    Anyway, if any reader here gets the chance to see the movie, I highly recommend it!

  3. #3 Apesnake
    March 17, 2006

    When discussing how to convey science to the public it might be helpful to look at what really works. While there always are a few poorly done science documentaries, some of the best popular science communication efforts I have seen are Discovery Channel and PBS shows.

    What the really successful ones have in common are their attention to the narrative. Nova has constantly produced shows about subjects to which I initially thought: “Oh no. That won’t have anything new.” or “That’s not something I have any interest in.” only to be drawn in by the story behind the subject. Some of the Discovery Channel shows combine the excellent graphical simulations with background information about how we know what is being shown is close to the truth.

    There are so many aspects of history and science and the history of science that make for compelling narratives and interesting characters that educational works do not require ‘tarting up’. We don’t need more scientists with tap shoes, but more TV producers with vision and a willingness to listen to the experts rather than the marketing department. But then if that happened there would be better cultural offer in all media.

    It is not just science though, is it?. The general public does not care much about history, foreign cultures, art, literature etc. Maybe the general public just does not want civilization.

  4. #4 SkookumPlanet
    March 18, 2006

    I was away from my computer and unable to join in the discussion of Randy’s film and his ten suggested ways “evolutionsists” can improve communication. I know how Randy’s suggestions were received. He came in for a great deal of criticism. His suggestions were of an elementary type, just a babystep into the correct direction of how to understand the way mass decision making works in the U.S. today, and will for decades, at least. I had to read the threads well after they’d grown stale.

    This was very frustrating reading. I’ve been trying to make some educational comments about today’s science-based mass communication in science blogs when the topic was appropriate. This time I’ll be blunter and provocative and hope none of this is taken personally. I’ll provide a few links at the end that will confirm it’s not personal. Only the first three responses are posted as I write this, but they are more of the same cluelessness that generally has afflicated the disscussions in this area I’ve followed in the last several months. As you’ll see, I’m very frustrated.

    Dave Rintoul

    to drag our efforts into line with the “everything is different now” realities of the new communcation era, etc. etc. I’m still not convinced that this movie is a good strategy ….I draw the line at any strategy that engages ID as if it is equal to any sort of science…That is the turf that the DI and the “teach the controversy” folks drew up for themselves

    You’re using the same type of rhetorical devices creationists do. How are “realities of the new communication” and “any strategy that engages ID as if it is equal to any sort of science” equal? One does not follow from the other. “That is the turf…drew up for themselves.” Of course it is. Why in the world does the “new communication” equal operating by their game plan. It’s exactly the opposite! Science has responded, up till now, exactly as it always had and that’s their game plan. That is their game plan. The “new communication” reality means you let the professionals — who do this for a living, day in, day out — figure out how to change the rules. What makes scientists think they know jack shit about this? Somebody enlighten me.

    Madison Avenue and Hollywood gimmicks can be used, but not if they grant the IDiots this legitimacy before engaging them in the battle

    I’m going to respond to this the same way I do Apesnake’s pronouncement below — This is ignorance of the worst kind, lethal to science in America. Characterizing the science-based psychomarketing of today as “Madison Avenue and Hollywood gimmicks” is as dumb as saying “if we evolved from apes, how come there are still apes?”

    But we’re not selling cereal; the analogy that we must treat the American public as “consumers” of everything and anything is seriously appalling when you apply it to truth vs. lies.

    Of course it’s appalling — it’s called politics. Look around at contemporary America — science ain’t the only thing in deep doo doo. Truth vs. lies? What planet are you living on? It’s not about the “analogy that we must treat the American public as ‘consumers'”…”, it’s about the FACT that we must do so. It’s REALITY! It’s the way contemporary America works. You can hate it, but there’s no way you’re gonna change it.


    We don’t need more scientists with tap shoes, but more TV producers with vision and a willingness to listen to the experts rather than the marketing department. But then if that happened there would be better cultural offer in all media.

    No, you’re wrong. If that happened the networks would go broke and the producers, who have families, would be out of jobs. Sit down and spend two whole days, wake-up to sleep, only watching cable programming you would never ordinarily watch. Can you say “FOX”? Broadcast television has, in a few years, become largely aimed at the 14-year-old-female psyche. There’s a reason. Money. The only “vision’ TV producers have is for revenue. “Producer” is one of the least secure jobs in the industry.

    points about “compelling narratives and interesting characters that educational works do not require ‘tarting up’.”

    This thinking is stuck in an archaic notion about science education. Forget education, there’s no way in hell to educate ourselves out of this problem. That chance existed in the 50s — it’s looooooooong gone. But “tarting up”? This is ignorance of the worst kind, lethal to science in America. This is exactly how eveybody to the left of the radical right thinks about psychomarketing, and the whole, sorry lot is well into the process of being buried. This is displaying toward the science-based persuasion industry exactly the same kind of mental approach that creationsist apply to biology — ignorant rejection based on unexamined faith.

    This type of reaction to the sociopolitical issues facing science, by scientists, is really a form of “either/or” thinking based on ignorance of psychomaketing technology. Either we do it the “honest” way or we evolve ourselves into “dishonest” husckterism. Says who?

    Over several months, most of the discussers of science’s sociopolitical straits seem to be living in some sort of fantasy world, some sort of idealized version of America that works according to how they think or belive it should. It doesn’t. Hasn’t for decades. If they would only apply the same set of skills they bring to science to the problem of mass communication, there’s a chance.

    It’s science! SCIENCE, people!!!!!

    Psychomarketing can be understood in the same way scientists would understand any other unfamiliar branch of science. The answers are out there. The fact that after 30-years of growing right-wing power there are only a few places, like Lakoff, where well-done opposition research has been published is very symptomatic of the problem. How is it we are so keyed into science-driven issues and so adverse to a scientific approach to strategy and tactics and politics? Poll-taking is 50s technology — still useful but not state-of-the-art. One of the major insights that “persuasion science” provides us is that people do not, generally, think, decide nor act rationally, but emotionally. We are emotional beings even when our self-interest argues we should be rational, for example, in economics. And then we lie to ourselves and say it’s rational behavior. Here’s another, small example you’ll find in “persuasion science” — hyperbolic time discounting.

    As briefly as possible — out of necessity the only way into people’s minds is through sophisticated mass communication tools derived from 50 years of applying a growing, increasingly nuanced scientific knowledge of how humans process information. I call these tools “psychomarketing”. Psychomarketing knows something. It knows it has to be emotional, persuasion-based communication and there is immense competition to do this. There is no other alternative. Period.

    Get over it.

    Immediately it’s about a highly specialized type of communication, through certain media with strengths and weaknesses, to huge masses of extremely distracted people, and in an HIGHLY competitive environment where many decades of research and application results are being utilized by high-stakes, big-money players whose survival depends on the results!

    Average Americans, outside their immediate social milieu, exist in a virtually 100% designed and manipulated environment. Thinking, or rather believing, that facts or information or education or, we’ve seen recently, even reality are adequate to penetrate into this environment is highly irrational. This genie is out of the bottle permanently. The apparently widespread belief that things can be changed without getting immersed in the persuasion game is doomed, doomed, doomed.

    This uninformed reaction against psychomarketing, especially on the part of smart, analytical, politically-oriented people is so naive and so counterproductive that I’ve had to conclude it’s the result of a fundamental, unexamined emotional response to reality. It’s preventing successful approaches to many emerging political issues. The data are there, the applications are there, the results are there, the analysis of it all is there, yet it’s being ignored by virtually everyone concerned with science [and the left in general].

    Whatever approach[es] eventually get used, they will no longer take place in a stable environment. The other side, behind whom are the upper-echelon far-right strategists — the only group that’s effectively mastered psychomarketing in politics — the other side will be co-evolving. To them, this is about a long-term national political agenda of high stakes. And right now, today, they’ve got the chops and we don’t. They’ll observe and analyize opponents’ counter-stratigies, devise counter-counter-strategies and tactics, and make them operational in short order.

    Psychomarketing has become so powerful in the political arena, and it’s use so one-sided, that standard approaches to countering these trends will always be outmaneuvered. It’s the equivilant of going up against machine guns with flintlocks. Sophisticated political forces in America are using science-derived technology to manipulate a constituency. If they need to defund or even wreck areas of science to get and maintain political power, they’ll do it without a second thought. We live in the most powerful, richest, most abundant and magical nation that has ever existed on the planet. Leading and directing this nation politically puts one at the pinnacle of history and power [so far]. They’ll screw science in a heartbeat.

    More specific treatment of pyschomarketing is in comments I made in two consecutive No Se Nadas, the first on earthquake prediction lessons for anti-ID campaigners and the second on scientists’ public communication about global warming, here and here. And a bit about what I think scientists can expect from an increasingly hostile electorate is in this Afarensis where the blogger feels a bit of that future.

  5. #5 Pete Dunkelberg
    March 18, 2006

    “We will have details on our website next week on how to get tickets.”

    What web site? is a blank page. The View Source browser option shows some pseudohtml. As a communications expert you should do better.

  6. #6 Randy Olson
    March 18, 2006

    Pete – blank page? I’m looking at it right now on my mother’s computer, no problem. Are you on dial up?

  7. #7 SkookumPlanet
    March 18, 2006

    Sorry, here’s the second No Se Nada.

  8. #8 E. Bartmess
    March 18, 2006

    There was a comment on the original post to the effect that we ought to be putting money into what we can. I think it would be fantastic to have a list of evolution-education-relevant causes that interested parties can donate money to, and to start circulating that list among friends and (if you’re in an appropriate work environment) colleagues. Suggestions?

    For anyone interested, Margaret E. Evans at University of Michigan does interesting research on evolution education and creationist beliefs in elementary school children.

  9. #9 Dave Rintoul
    March 19, 2006

    “There is no other alternative. Period.”

    Anyone who writes that statement has no business accusing others of adopting the rhetorical devices of the creationists…

    As I said in my original post – there can be disagreements over strategy. Let’s just say we disagree, and shelve the accusations and insults.


  10. #10 SkookumPlanet
    March 19, 2006


    That statement of mine is not about strategy, nor the conclusion my own.

    It’s a statement about reality.

    Don’t take my word for it. Do research — go ask the people who know, the ones earning a living by trying to reach the 300-million-person American public. They’ll tell you the entire public space has become one vast, ongoing commercial of competing interests.

    The average American teenager processes about 3,000 ads [professionally produced persuasion messages] a day!

    Contemporary America is ALL MESSAGE, all the time. Talk about survival of the fittest. Citizens are so overwhelmed with messages that just to get their attention long enough to deliver one’s message has become a brutal, highly competitive, junkyard-dog struggle. [Message content is a seperate issue.]

    Do the research first.

  11. #11 SkookumPlanet
    March 19, 2006

    Let me try to be more explicit about my last comment.

    Virtually all the criticism I’ve seen of Olson’s suggestions that posit a “Hollywood and Madison Avenue”, posit a straw man.

    It’s a fictitious construct in the mind of the speaker that does not correspond to any reality of America today!

    Virtually all the criticism I’ve seen of Olson’s suggestions that propose alternate approaches make zero attempt to ascertain or explicate what actually can succeed in America.

    These alternatives are fictitious constructs in the minds of the speakers that do not correspond to any reality of America today!

    I’ve seen nobody attempt to go to scientific literature, to scientists in the relevant fields, or to technologists applying the research, nobody make any attempt to actually figure out what the communication environment is actually like in America. I’ve seen no cogent deconstruction of how ID has exploded across the country nor of what’s coming down the pike. I’ve seen dismissal of other fields of research and of adversaries. I’ve seen assumption that there is not really any there there in mass political communication. I’ve seen misunderstanding that this is fundamentally a problem about science and education when is 100% political in nature — science and education are simply sacrificial lambs.

    It’s all uninformed, unscientific, uncurious, gossipy cliche. Olson’s critics are just shooting from the hip. Everybody’s an amateur mouthing off about something they are obviously clueless about. You have no idea how ridiculous this all sounds because none of you are are willing to do something you do almost every day as scientists — admit you might not know and go looking for truth and knowledge. And thus, there are the beginnings of an ignorant debate that will accomplish little other than buy more time for the anti-science movement to get more proficient. Again, what makes scientists think they know jack shit about this? Somebody enlighten me.

    Have you people been paying attention to “movement conservative” mouthpieces speak about science over the last year or two. Science is being sold out for votes, votes, votes, votes, votes, votes, votes, votes, votes, votes, votes, votes, votes, votes, votes, votes. Votes equal power. Power, in America, equals money. Lots and lots of money.

    Lecture series, television nature series, professional organizations, Saganesque “public-faces”, statements, education reform …………!?!?!?!?

    Nobody will listen. NOBODY WILL PAY ANY ATTENTION. You can yak until your tongues fall out, write until your fingers dissolve, and theorize until there’s no dopamine left.

    You must, must, must get through the immense clutter in people’s lives and in their minds. What is it, exactly, that’s going to cause the soccer mom running herself ragged in an SUV, driven by her job, and her husband’s, which only get more demanding over the years, and a mortgage and future astronomical college tuitions for their kids, who have their own problems, who doesn’t know [and doesn’t care she doesn’t know] anything about science, who doesn’t want to think, who doesn’t want to hear about more problems, etc. etc., what is it exactly that’s going to cause her to cut something else out of her life in order to listen to you talk about scientific principles and science education? What? In order for her even TO LOOK AT YOU, let alone listen, she will have to give up something. The information revolution has come and gone and left contemporary culture a zero sum game. This is the reality of America today. So, how ya gonna do dat?

    From Olson’s critics I’ve heard not an iota of insight about this. ZERO. I’ve seen even less data.

    Truth, of itself, is not enough. Open your eyes. Open your brains. The American electorate/public is being masterfully manipulated, using science, and not even scientists can figure it out. How the hell do you expect average Americans to understand what’s being done to them?

    I’m NOT arguing strategy. No! Absolutely not! No way! NO!

    Strategy is for the professionals to figure out, not me. Not you.

    I’m arguing that, just like the brains behind your opponents, you need to approach the problem USING THE SCIENTIFIC METHOD!!! Why is this so hard to grasp? Continue on the present course, continue with your present mindset, and you’ll fail, not as teachers or parents or citizens or deans or grad students or mentors or colleagues or jokesters or workaholics or supervisors or administrators. You’ll fail as scientists. You will be out-thought, you will be out-researched, you will be out-field-worked, you will be out-experimental-protocoled, you will be out-analyzed, you will be out-stochasticized, you will be out-grant-written, you will be out-RFPed. How do I know? Because that’s happening right now, today. And those of you who think Olson had silicon brain implants while he was in “Hollywood” don’t see it.

    My message is very, very simple.

    First do the research.

    Do that, and all will be revealed. I promise you.

  12. #12 Pete Dunkelberg
    March 19, 2006

    Randy writes:
    “Pete – blank page? I’m looking at it right now on my mother’s computer, no problem. Are you on dial up?”

    That’s an odd question. If you have found a way to make html, or even proprietary pseudoHTML sensitive to that you’d know better than to use it. It is still blank for me.

    How about: slap self on forehead and say Darn! I didn’t check my proprietary css on more than one browser. Which one does it work for by the way? It is still blank for me.


  13. #13 Randy Olson
    March 20, 2006

    Wow. Skookum Planet, whoever you are, you speak the truth. And here’s another kind of sad dimension to it. So many of these failures of communication can be remedied by simply applying some of the basic principles of evolution. Like inbreeding dynamics and the need for maintaining variation to deal with changing environments.

    The mass communication of science was once fairly lively in the late 70’s when NOVA and Frontline were in their prime and PBS was one of 4 channels on the dial. But things have changed.

    There wasn’t a huge amount of variation in the science communication media back then, and today there’s probably even less. So what is there for selection to operate on in this changed media environment?

    I just don’t see the formal efforts to foster innovation (the analog to genetic variation in natural selection), and so there is no raw material with which to adapt to this new, changed media environment.

    And in sad contrast, the right wing, starting 30-40 years ago, began investing in the establishment of think tanks and forums that have fostered a great deal of innovation and creativity and could very well be the reason they now run the country and are having such success communicating circles around academia and the left. The dynamics appear fairly simple at this level.

    If you fail to innovate, you run the risk of not being able to deal with a new environment.

  14. #14 Steve Case
    March 20, 2006

    Randy is a well trained scientist. Not only has he found a way to communicate to a large part of the public, he has stimulated a fascinating discussion.

    The research on communication has been going on for a long time and actually know some things about how to communicate. Even more shockingly, we even know something about how people learn science (a good summary is in the NRC book; How People Learn

    It is important to pay attention to the other side of the communication – the listener. A thirty something (or older) professional researcher watches and perceives a film (and/or information) in a very different way then a your novice learner.

    If you want to try to communicate science in a new format, why not try podcasts, vodcasts and blogs – oh my! Have you noticed that lots of folks always seemed to be plugged in? Good examples are in the Podcast Directory has an entire section developed to Science and Nature; visit TERRA site in from Montana has several science and environmental podcasts available. Search for TERRA in the Apple iTunes music store. You can learn how to create your own podcast however you must promise not to be boring and long winded.

    In addition TERRA produces vodcasts (video podcasts) posting films about local national and international environmental issues. Student film makers do a good job with this material. A great place to start searching is at the TERRA blog –

    On blogging – I find that I start scanning really long blog entries after a bit and I have a pretty good attention span.

  15. #15 SkookumPlanet
    March 20, 2006


    Just so everyone’s clear, I meant you had silicone brain implants. Silicon brain implants might, theorectically, be a good thing.

    Feeling any discomfort, any soreness around them?

  16. #16 Dan Cabacungan
    March 20, 2006

    SkookumPlanet–right on. Randy–right on.

    As a brand strategist/advertising strategist, I’ve been long-dismayed by the disdain for “marketing” science as expressed in this and other public forums.

    We evolutionists have a great example to look to in communicating the importance of evolution (and science in general) to the American public–NASA. They’re arguably the most immediately recognizable and popular scientific organization in the country, and they’ve managed to bridge the gap between scientific goals and mass appeal. Certainly NASA’s marketing efforts haven’t always been “on” and their image has taken huge hits, but it’s hard to argue with the public attention and support that they’ve been able to wrangle at times. And it’s got a lot to do with “tarting-up” the science.

    Thanks to NASA, we got Tang, freeze-dried ice cream, watercooler talk, enough space equipment to fill dozens of museums, an emotional national victory in a time of strife…and some invaluable additions to our scientific understanding.

    To the average American NASA is much more than a scientific institution. It matters to us because we’re emotionally invested in what NASA does. It’s relevant beyond the scientific community.

    Just as NASA is more than a scientific institution, evolution is much more than a scientific theory. It’s an understanding of how viruses mutate and spread so we can stop disease, it’s a step toward telling the story of our planet, it’s knowing where we came from, it’s a wonderful sense of connectedness between living things, it’s an insult to anthropocentrism, it’s anti-(religion, god, society, morality), it’s good, it’s evil, etc.

    Any good marketer knows that a brand cannot try to represent all things at all times and expect people to have a clear understanding of why it should matter to them. If it’s confusing, it’s easier to ignore. You need to find something to “own” and do so with conviction or risk getting tripped up by every competitor that comes along (ID, for example).

    How are we branding evolution? I would ask every scientist whose work intersects evolutionary theory the following:

    –Why do you love what you do so much?
    –How are you changing the world?
    –What do you hope will result from your work in 10, 20, 50 years?
    –What’s the most fascinating thing you’ve encountered in your research?
    –What leaves you in awe?

    –Now, how would you explain all of these things to your grandparents/on a first date/to your kids/to your neighbors?

    Really, it’s less about thinking like a marketer and dumbing-down or tarting-up the science than it is about acknowledging and harnessing the emotional drivers that have drawn us all to be fascinated by evolution.

    In my job I’ve done the same kind of thinking for everything from videogames to nonprofits. If you doubt that emotion comes into play when shopping for a lawnmower or an energy bar, you’re behind the times (thanks for the fantastic summary or marketing theory, SkookumPlanet). If you think that emotion isn’t a factor when comparing personal, passionately held world views, you’re crazy.

  17. #17 Ricardo Azevedo
    March 21, 2006

    Congratulations! I hope you have a better turn out than you got here in Houston

    I have one question for you. Based on the screenings so far, how have viewers favorable to, or undecided about, intelligent design creationism reacted? Have you had anyone come up to you and say something like “Your movie has forced me to rethink the whole problem — now I understand that Behe’s Mount Rushmore argument is vacuous”?

  18. #18 SkookumPlanet
    March 21, 2006

    Steve and Dan

    Thanks for helping out! It would be great if someone could figure out a way to educate the science community about psychomarketing without those community members having to first admit they don’t get it. [Sigh.] I’ve come to realize it’s gonna be tough to convince such smart, knowledgeable, and analytical people that they aren’t behaving in a such a smart, knowledgeable, and analytical manner. I wish there was something like a psychological mirror.

    Maybe it will take a catastrophic defeat — or two. Those are clearly coming if the present thinking is maintained. Let’s hope, at that point, the hole science has dug itself into isn’t too deep. But the writing is on the wall, bigtime.


    If you fail to innovate, you run the risk of not being able to deal with a new environment.

    I think the first issue is they don’t see, and so don’t believe, there is a new environment. There could be various reasons for this.

    Perhaps a global warming analogy will work [for this discussion]. Global temperature fluctuations are still within a range people are familiar with. What they don’t understand, because they can’t experience it, is that CO2 levels are geometrically rising and that [let’s stipulate] the source for this is built-into the fabric of their lives in a way that didn’t exist even a few generations ago. So, there’s a radically different, but invisibly so, environment [runaway CO2, source embedded in economic system] that will, at some point, skew temperatures way beyond people’s familiarity. They’ll want to go back [who wants malaria] but will find that it’s difficult or impossible. They hadn’t been developing enough social and technological “genetic variation” to effectively cope because the changing environmental elements were beyond their senses.

    You’re fighting the good fight, so don’t give up. Who knows, you might save science and so become one of those paragons of science that future generations laud but who are reviled in their own times! 😉

  19. #19 Randy Olson
    March 22, 2006

    Ricardo – a lot of the blame for the small crowd size at Rice goes to me. When we got the news on Tribeca they asked us to “stay below the radar screen,” meaning they didn’t want something like the film critic from the Houston Chronicle writing a full review of the movie before Tribeca had the chance to host the official World Premiere.

    I ended up canceling 9 of the 12 screenings I had planned, then for the three that were too far along (Rice, FSU, KSU) I reluctantly asked them to pull things back on the promotion side. So I feel largely responsible for the small showings, but the funny thing is, the quality of panel discussions in the 9 advance screenings really ended up being an inverse function of the crowd size — i.e. the smaller groups allow for in-depth discussion and less nervousness/intimidation from the audience. Stony Brook turned out an amazing overflow 500+ crowd (thanks to Jeff Levinton’s amazing promotional campaign that included a student in a dodo costume running through classes that week), but the discussion was just odd, with us seated up on a stage looking down at the people on the floor.

    The best discussion was at Florida State where it ran for over an hour and a half and almost no one left. And the Rice discussion was equally great. However, the best and most memorable aspect of the Rice screening was the Buddhist monk in the audience (my mother, in perhaps the most head-shaking moment of the film, says in her final bit that she’s now thinking of studying Buddhism). He came up to her afterwards, she looked sheepish and said, “I guess I’m ready to start studying,” and he replied, “the nice thing about Buddhism is you don’t have to study it, you just have to live it.” Which are words that will stay with her forever.

    As for whether the film is changing anyone, you have to believe in the more subtle, non-immediate, intuitive long term aspects of film as a medium. People leave films feeling like they learned nothing and were unaffected, but later come to realize they really were touched or moved or led to deeper thoughts by a film. In the case of Flock of Dodos, I think its not so much in what is said but in how it is said, and the overall gestalt of the two sides. As you listen to the evolutionists, you sense the clarity of thought (even after a few glasses of wine at the poker table) and you know what types of people they are (which in my firm opinion is, on the whole very, very decent and honest). You also get a clear sense of who these intelligent designers are, not so much by exactly what they say, but from the types of people they appear to be, the way they talk, the tiny subtle mannerisms as they cast about trying to synthesize their thoughts.

    A lot of it is what Malcolm Gladwell was talking about with “Blink.” You walk away with a deeper intuitive sense of who these people are and their motives. Which is why we open the film with, “Res Ipsa Loquitur — It speaks for itself.” They didn’t need creative editing. They didn’t need ridiculing. They deserve a certain level of respect and understanding. And they deserve to be labeled for what they are — a movement that has not advanced beyond the stage of intuition. Plain and simple. No need to be threatened by them. Just help the public understand better who they are.

    Oh yeah, and the Mt. Rushmore bit at the end is fairly amazing. Credit goes to my cameraman, Shane Seley, who made the connection between their use of Mt. Rushmore as their icon (there’s still an intelligent design website selling Mt. Rushmore t-shirts) and the presence of Jefferson, who advocated a wall of separation between church and state. And this isn’t to insult or ridicule I.D., its simply to point out how nascent, intuitive and full of contradictions the movement is.

    I think the door should be left open to challenge them to develop their ideas into science. But in the meanwhile, the words of the Dover judge provide the simple clear pronouncement that, in spite of Dr. Behe’s comments in the film, I.D. simply is not at this point any sort of science.

  20. #20 SkookumPlanet
    March 22, 2006

    You walk away with a deeper intuitive sense of who these people are and their motives.

    This is the same with fiction and non-fiction. The only difference is in fiction everything’s invented.

    The credo when I was getting my MFA in fiction writing was “Show, don’t tell,” and “Be concrete.” That’s because what a fiction writer does technically is create vicarious reality which the reader/viewer participates in as if it’s actual reality. In other words, if you have a character who you need to be stupid [ID] you don’t tell the reader they’re stupid. You create a scene in which the character does something stupid and leave it at that. The readers participate in the scene and then, exactly as they would in real life, say to themselves, “Boy, that guy sure is stupid.” Most of this in real life is done on an intuitive, emotional level.

    One can do the same thing with non-fiction. It’s important in the context of psychomarketing science because [to repeat a main lecture point]….

    One of the major insights that “persuasion science” provides us is that people do not, generally, think, decide nor act rationally, but emotionally. We are emotional beings even when our self-interest argues we should be rational, for example, in economics. And then we lie to ourselves and say it’s rational behavior.

    It has to be emotional, persuasion-based communication to work. Otherwise you’re just p*ssing into the great American-Culture-Zero-Sum-Game-Ocean.

    I suspect we’ve evolved as fundamentally emotional decisions-makers, not rational ones. And even the most rational, evidence-driven of us should assume we’ve got some emotional decision-making we’re in denial about. Nobody wants to believe they make important, unconsious emotional decisions. But, science tells us otherwise.

  21. #21 Dave Rintoul
    March 23, 2006

    To Mr. S. Planet and all the planetoids

    There does seem to be a lack of communication here. In case you didn’t notice, I never asserted that marketing has no scientific underpinning, nor do I believe that this struggle must be waged without those tools. I just don’t think those tools are the only tools. So you win, I agree, marketing tools can be effective and can have a place. You didn’t even need to resort to insults like “clueless”, “ignorant”, or “avoiding the truth”. You could have knocked that straw man over without those pejoratives. Congratulations.

    What I actually said, twice, is that there might be disagreements about strategy. Apparently that needs more clarity. So let’s back up a bit. It might help to 1) define the Problem, 2) identify some likely Cause(s) of the problem, and then 3) propose some tactics to eliminate the Cause(s) of the Problem. Then we can talk about which tactics might be most effective, which is what I mean by strategy. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

    1) The Problem – too many Americans have too many preconceptions/misconceptions or otherwise are ignorant about the facts that separate evolutionary theory from creationism or ID.
    2) The Causes
    a. Anti-intellectualism (a long-time American tradition), further inflamed by conservative lawmakers/executives who want to downsize government at all costs, including the slow death of public education. A corollary of this comes in the form of increasing disrespect and decreasing real funding for educators at all levels, but most markedly in the K-12 ranks. Pay is miserable, hours are long, and the profession is increasingly populated by folks who are not the best and the brightest. At KSU, students in the College of Education have the lowest SAT/ACT entry scores of any of the colleges, and that trend is also true nationwide.
    b. Willful ignorance perpetuated by full-time liars like the Discovery Institute
    c. Human nature – it is easier to believe than to think
    d. Scientists who cannot communicate well.
    e. other (fill in the bogyeman of your choice)
    3) The Solutions (corresponding to the letters above)
    a. Education
    b. Education/movies/psychomarketing
    c. ?
    d. ?
    e. ?

    I hope we can agree on the Problem. If so, perhaps we can also agree that the Causes are interrelated. As for the Solutions, and strategy about which Solution(s) might be more effective, I think it is useful to point out that it is often more effective to battle the primary cause rather than to fight the sypmptoms/effects. Which of the problems seems the most causal or serious to you? Scientists who cannot communicate well? Or perhaps a and b?

    I’m gonna vote for a, b, and c myself. But if you still think that clueless ignorant scientists are the major hurdle in the path toward enlightenment of the American public, you’ll need to explain a few things. For example, other countries have scientists who might even be more clueless and ignorant than those in the USA. But they don’t have a and b to the same extent that we do, and, surprisingly enough, they don’t have the Problem to the same degree that we do. That suggests, to me at least, that a and b might be more important than d. But if you disagree, I’m sure we’ll hear about it.

    What I am primarily interested in hearing, however, is some practical solutions for the clueless ignorant head-in-the-sand scientists in this country. I have heard next to nothing. Randy Olson was asked that question at the screening of Dodos in Manhattan KS. Obviously we can’t all stop doing science and make movies. Some other suggestions were to educate the next generation of scientists to be better communicators and classroom teachers. Unfortunately for that argument, we already do that; we have had a presentations/communication course for our Biology grad students for the past 16 years. We’re not unique, I’m sure.

    Another suggestion is for scientists to engage in more community activism and outreach. Again, we’re already doing that. One of the faculty members in my department instigated the petition that resulted in the local school board unanimously adopting a resolution that ignores the unscientific KBOE standards. Over 200 KSU scientists signed that petition, many showed up at the school board meetings, or wrote letters to the editor. An interdisciplinary group of KSU departments sponsored the showing of Dodos here. The local Sigma Xi chapter recently had a panel discussion on the topic of ID and evolution, and I gave the initial presentation at that event. Sure, we could always do more, or do it more effectively. But to have those efforts ignored, or dismissed as “masturbation”, as you did on RedState Rabble, is both wrong and insulting. Frankly, blogging is a lot more like masturbation…

    Another suggestion was to influence producers of PBS and NatGeo programs to make them better. I don’t know how to say this more clearly, but the “scientific community” has very little control over those folks. If you do, then you and Randy can take on this task. It is a bit disingenuous to blame scientists for that perceived gap in the arsenal, don’t you think? So please give me some concrete suggestions for effective actions by scientists that acknowledge realities like those listed above. What else can we do?

    Which brings me to my final point. What the hell are YOU doing besides telling other people how to do their jobs better? Let me know that, and I might have suggestions for how to do your job better! For a bit of contrast, let me tell you some other things I am doing.

    Besides research, I have coordinated our introductory biology class every fall semester for the past 8 years. That class emphasizes evolution throughout the semester, and enrolls 800 students every fall semester. I routinely have long and valuable discussions or email exchanges with students who have major mis/preconceptions about evolutionary theory. Believe it or not, we use whatever works, including “emotional, persuasion-based” communication methods. If we manage to dislodge a mis/preconception in 1% of those students, we have made a bigger impact than your rants on this blog. And I’d bet that we reach at least that 1% level. Maybe even 10%

    I, and lots of other university scientists, fight on the front lines of this struggle every day. We may not be very effective in all aspects, but it is likely that we know something about the process of education and, yes, communication. And we may be doing something useful, even if you don’t seem to think so.

    In summary, if we agree on the Problem and some of the Causes, we might get closer to agreeing about Solutions. Perhaps someday you can accept that there are bigger villains causing the problem than clueless ignorant self-abusing scientists. Perhaps some day you can accept that other folks are doing their damndest to educate and communicate, and that you may not be aware of all of those efforts. And finally, if you are going to continue to stand by and watch “in dismay” before telling other people how to do their jobs, please use your real name. I find it difficult to engage in a serious discussion with someone who calls him/herself SkookumPlanet. But more importantly, if you don’t have sufficient respect for your own opinions to put your name on them, then you can’t expect much respect for those opinions from others.

  22. #22 Theodore Price
    March 23, 2006

    Right on Dave! I would just like to reiterate that communication skills have become an important part of the biology PhD programs in the vast majority of Universities. While I am relatively certain that my mentors did not recieve this type of training, I certainly did and it was enlightening and I use that training regularly. As such, i take every opportunity I can to go out and talk to other scientists or the general public. Unfortunately, those opportunities are rather few and far between — although I hope as my career develops they will continue to increase.

    As a postdoc, I work ~70hr weeks between experiments, grant writing, committees, training grad students and doing a bit of teaching. I know that once I take a full tenrue-track position the demands on my time are only going to increase. Being an academic scientist, in my opinion, is the greatest job in the world. However, it is a constant fight. Research is becoming more and more expensive while funding is shrinking and even a small slip in productivity can mean a catastrophic loss of funding and therefore livelihood. I would guess that most of my colleagues would be willing to pitch in some of their time, but we have little to spare and our resources are strained.

    So how bout some help from the marketing community, maybe on a volunteer basis (I’m sure if any of you saw my paycheck you’d agree that I’m already pretty much a full time volunteer). Hopefully all us reason loving people can agree it’d be in all of our best interest.

  23. #23 Randy Olson
    March 25, 2006

    Dave — Your analytical assessment of the problems and solutions is really good. You hit on most of the major factors, and put into words what I generally feel when I’m doing my whining about improving the communication of science — that all I’m advocating is to work on just one of the many factors that account for why I.D. managed to catch fire so quickly last year (and by the way, I’ve been contacted now by a major Hollywood production company who is in casting for a movie titled, “Monkey Trial,” which is going to be a re-telling of “Inherit the Wind,” from the pro-I.D. perspective, to be directed by Mel Gibson’s producing partner who was involved with a little movie called, “Passion of the Christ,” so brace yourselves evolutionists).

    At any rate there are many fronts to this issue, but I’m not being naïve when I say that you, the academic scientist, can have an effect upon the quality of programming. It’s all about the term “FEEDBACK.”

    I still remember, in 1967, my seventh grade Personal Citizenship teacher saying, “Today we have a new word to learn, feedback.” There was once a time when that word didn’t exist and people’s actions were mostly driven by their own internal voices. That was before the advent of the Information Era.

    But make no mistake, today we are all conditioned to respond to feedback, whether we care to admit it or not. It’s the worst thing in the world for the true artist — I once listened to a talk by a major novelist who said, “Feedback — don’t want it, please keep it to yourself.” It confuses and constrains the internal voice. But its impossible to ignore.

    And so that’s one of the major things you can do. Offer up feedback to all organizations and individuals involved in the communication of evolution. Yes, I know you’re very busy, but I honestly think, per unit effort, this is probably the most effective thing you or anyone else could do in having an effect on the big picture of how evolution gets communicated.

    People just don’t realize how little feedback makes it to the creators of programming. Programmers go out and get their own feedback in advance through test screenings, then there’s the standard round of feedback through published reviews (which the programmers are trained to ignore), but what’s really hard to dismiss is the single individual who is so moved by a piece of media that they sit down on their own and write something, unsolicited. That sort of feedback has the power to be very penetrating.

    And here’s an element of feedback you can offer …

    CASTING. This is something I should have included more explicitly in my list of ten suggestions for improved communication of evolution. There is a public voice for evolution which consists of both mass media and individual spokespersons. All of it involves choosing who will tell the stories from the world of evolution, and that means it involves basically “casting.”

    One thing I learned, painfully well, in film school is that casting is often 99% of the whole project. You put Jack Nicholson in your film in a likable role, you’re guaranteed to get a likable performance. You put some unknown actor with a mean countenance and poor delivery of lines you’re going to have something people hate watching. Makes no difference they are both saying the same lines. It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.

    The same is true for the communication of evolution. Right now, I am putting all my chips on Dr. Steve Case, head of the Kansas Writing Committee. He’s got a great combination of elements — well humored, nice guy, very articulate, very humble, and best of all, very patient. There might be better spokespersons out there, but what I know so far is that all neutral folks (neither rabidly pro-evolution nor pro-intelligent design) cite him as their favorite character in my film. The bit that he delivers about “the God of the gaps” concept and how it leads to the predicament that the more we learn the smaller God gets, which we illustrated with a brick wall graphic, is I think the most profound summary to date of the flawed logic of intelligent design. At our test screening you could hear people in the audience say a hushed, “oh my goodness,” as they got his point.

    It doesn’t matter how many accolades a speaker has, or how much passion and enthusiasm, or how many big words they can toss out. It’s not about any one variable. It’s about “casting.” Finding likable individuals who can appeal to the broad audience, but are also sharp enough to deliver the message correctly. They are out there. They just need to be discovered.

    And when the wrong person is representing the face of evolution (wrong as in arrogant, condescending, angry, impatient), it is up to the knowledgeable audience, like you Dave, to offer up the guiding, even unsolicited, feedback to the people in charge of “casting” to make sure evolution is communicated more effectively. It might take a few minutes to track down the name and address of the head of a science organization that presented an angry condescending unlikable evolutionist to give a long winded tedious talk to a broad audience and write them a letter, but make no mistake, such letters, even if angrily dismissed by the programmers, are heard.

  24. #24 Anon
    April 5, 2006

    Regards concision,

    “I have made this [letter] longer, because I have not had the time to make it shorter.” — Blaise Pascal

    “If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.” — Albert Einstein(?)

    Concision has “always” been linked with good communication. Reflecting effort and quality understanding. Mass communication merely accentuates its importance.

    I suggest it is also very hard. Beyond mere “I’m a professor; this is my field; I’m good at; and at communicating; and I’ve invested time and effort”. Harder than that. Hard enough that even giving it its own subfield doesn’t assure success (eg, physics education research). Hard enough to require changes in the way science is funded, rewarded, and even conducted.

    Some years ago there was a discussion in Am.J.Phys. An astronomer went to grade schools, inviting questions. To collect them, thus profiling interest, and to test the “six year old” hypothesis. The inability to usefully describe fusion in response to “Why does the sun shine?” was proposed as a counter case. It was pointed out that “hot things glow” was a far better response, accessible, fruitful, and observable in every day life. But there is no social mechanism to consolidate, test, and apply such observations.

    Nor are “science writers” sufficient. Hard, as in communication even within science is troubled. Anything which “cuts across the grain” of the research effort, such as communication between fields, and even between subfields, has difficulties. Such as educating the next generation of researchers. There is a reason one makes a point of not missing a talk by…, when one’s sub/field is blessed by someone with an exceptional grasp of what’s going on.

    That said, current practice does seem so poor as to permit easy improvement. Perhaps.

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