Flock of Dodos

Earlier this week, I had a chance to talk with Randy Olson about this business of communication good science to the public. I’ve had some disagreements with his strategies before; I think we resolved them a bit. What I had interpreted as a call to dumb down science to get it to the people is really a request that we develop clear narratives, good stories, and sharp, comprehensible slogans backing evolution and science teaching. I agree completely. We are experts at efficient discourse within the community of science, but when it comes to talking to middle America, we suck. There is a good reason for that — we get all of our training in how to talk to other people who have all of our training, but not in how to educate people who don’t have the same background — but that’s no excuse. It’s something we have to change.

Randy was generous and let me have a copy of his movie, Flock of Dodos, and I finally found time to sit down and watch it this evening. It’s excellent and the overall message was one with which I agree, and I hope more scientists get a chance to see it—it accomplishes its mission of shaking us up and pointing out our flaws, and we need that. However, it doesn’t quite satisfy the criticisms I had in mind before I saw it, and there was something that bugged me throughout.

Let me start with my complaint. It’s not my most important impression of the movie, but I just want to get it out of the way.

Talking with Randy helped clarify his intent: this is a movie with a story, one that simplifies the issues a fair amount, but most importantly, makes it entertaining, memorable, and comprehensible. Fair enough; here’s the rough version of the story. The creationists are normal, good-hearted, reasonable people who are wrong, but are approaching the problem cheerfully, with solid financial backing and a happy attitude, and they’re successful. They’re the ones you’d like to play poker with…even if they are wrong. Meanwhile, the scientists are dour and angry, they babble out big words and incomprehensible strings of evidence when asked simple questions, and they’ve obviously flunked Communications 101. They’re right about the science, but they’re losing ground in the popular consciousness. Both groups are dodos, for different reasons.

What bothered me most, though, and bothered me most particularly today (it might have been less disturbing a year ago, but maybe not), is that the portrayal of the creationists as happy, well-meaning people is false. This was most obvious to me in the section with the extremely conservative Kansas school board member, Kathy Martin, who was basically bragging about her extensive Republican extremist backing, and the camera zooms in on a portrait of GW Bush over her shoulder. Today is, of course, the day after our government approved our president’s right to ignore the Geneva convention and torture people on suspicion, supported by people exactly like Kathy Martin. They may be laughing fascists, but they’re still ethically and intellectually odious, and I think the framework Olson has used to tell his story is painfully flawed. If they are good people, they are good people who are doing very bad things. That does not come through in the movie.

The portrayal of the creationist side is flawed and far too kind, but I think Olson’s story about the science side is much more accurate, and perhaps not cruel enough. We’re klutzes. We need to be told that.

I remember McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education. I paid attention to Edwards v. Aguillard. I certainly recall well the recent Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District case. Each one was a great victory, and something we should rejoice over. Each one was also a stupid waste of time. I compare it to a game of Russian Roulette, where each case was a click of the trigger. Yes, we are right to celebrate the fact that our brains weren’t blown out. What drives me absolutely nuts with frustration, though, is that after each of those cases, we did nothing more, we just sat back and waited for the creationists to give the chambers of the gun another spin and hand it right back to us. We are a flock of complacent dodos to keep playing this same game over and over, especially since it is always the creationists who are taking the initiative and aggressively pushing new strategies, time after time.

We’re seeing the same pattern developing now. We won the Kitzmiller case, and we won it big. What next? Are scientists and educators doing anything to make sure this doesn’t happen again? Are we going after these guys hard, following up with attacks of our own against the sources of creationist misinformation? Is there an organization, for example, exhorting the citizens of Dover to sue the Thomas More Law Center for malfeasance in pursuing a doomed court case? How about hounding contributors to the Discovery Institute? I’ve been over-generous in assuming harmlessness in the Gates Foundation’s contributions to the Discovery Institute’s non-creationist activities, but I think I was wrong: we should be pursuing every avenue to cut those scoundrels off at the knees.

Where are our education initiatives? Is anyone telling the NSF and NIH that they damn well better start supporting training in education and the media? Are our universities being encouraged to reach out to community schools to correct the structural flaws in science education that are handicapping the general public? Are biology departments calling up the schools of education in their own institutions and telling them what the future science teachers must know if they are to be qualified?

Where is the new generation of science popularizers? They’re out there, I’m sure, but they are not being promoted and fêted and encouraged. Within the science community itself, the words “popular science” are typically uttered with a sneer, and trying to reach the public with the ideas of science counts for almost nothing in tenure and promotion decisions…and to some faculty, it counts against you. We have institutional norms that actively discourage exactly the kind of outreach that would help us most.

Those are the minimal changes that need to be made. I don’t think they are. I think we’re all resting on the transient legacy of a few successful court cases, watching the preachers and media mavens continue to hypnotize the public, and in five or ten years, we’ll see another big-time court case, maybe in Ohio or Florida or Texas, and people will scramble then to do damage control and eke out another legal victory…or not. Personally, I don’t think we can win many more. Remember, this is a country where the senate just voted to approve torture—enshrining religion in our science classes is a trivial abuse by comparison.

I think Flock of Dodos is exactly the kind of kick in the ass that the scientific community needs. I worry, though, that by downplaying the nastiness of the creationists (and talking to Randy, I know he’s well aware of how rotten the creation science industry is), it feeds the complacency of the public. I also fear that its message, that we need to get smarter in fighting creationism in the court of public opinion, is going to get passed over in our triumphal self-congratulation at winning the Dover case.

Oh, and I have one other complaint about the movie. Muffy Moose was a hoot, and she didn’t get enough screen time.

I sound so critical (I know, I’m always mean that way), so I have to mention one other good thing about the movie. One of the most effective sequences was where Olson pinned John Calvert on a claim. Calvert parrots Jonathan Wells argument that biologists’ ideas about evolution are anchored in the old, discredited claims of Ernst Haeckel (false), and that Haeckelian recapitulation is rife in our textbooks (also false). Olson is sitting in Calvert’s office, sees that he has some biology textbooks there, and simply asks Calvert to show him this stuff. There are then several shots of the two of them looking through indexes, not finding Haeckel at all, looking under various other possible categories, and Calvert looking hopelessly befuddled. Now that’s effective filmmaking.