Randy Olson doesn’t like you. He says some very harsh things about the science blogs readership on the Skepticality podcast — you guys are all just so darn mean to him. This is all very unfortunate, because he does have some good things to say, but he’s also taking disagreement very personally, and is seeing things only through the lens of the filmmaker,which is skewing his perspective away from some significant points, at the same time that it’s giving him some useful and interesting views.
For instance, he criticizes my response to the event in which I got kicked out of a movie theater — the problem, he says, was that I was drawing attention to an event in which I had nothing to sell, while they did, and that’s a mistake. I certainly do have something to sell: myself (which I find personally important, even if no one else does), the blog Pharyngula, and the science of evolution. I don’t have a movie, but most people don’t; it’s a case of the Olson blinders to think that the only thing that matters is your movie. I managed to sell Pharyngula quite well, and got a lasting 30-50% increase in traffic, as well as more attention from the media.
The other thing he’s missing is what we accomplished with Expelled. Again, we don’t have a competing movie to promote, so we couldn’t very well peddle a positive message about our alternative cinema experience. Instead, we had to show that Expelled was a profoundly dishonest movie on all levels; we impeached its credibility successfully. The reviews tell the story, that they all point out how wretchedly false the story of the movie was. We can’t stop people from attending the movie, but we can weaken its utility as a tool for the creationist movement.
And that’s where we won. The podcast continues to falsely claim that the movie was a success, quoting box office figures. Wrong message. This movie was a flop: it lost money. Even more significantly, it failed with its intended audience. Remember, creationism is huge in this country, and a movie that taps into that base has got an automatic edge, which is how it managed to get millions in gross receipts. However, that’s also where it failed. It did not get any momentum at all with the evangelical audience, with a steady, rapid decline in attendance from day one. This is a movie that is coasting on Christian gullibility, but is getting no traction at all. Part of it is that the movie started with no credibility, but I suspect another part of its failure was in its marketing: ads on The Daily Show sound impressive to us, but weren’t going to draw in likely attendees, and using a rock-and-roll soundtrack and the image of rebelliousness is also not going to woo the evangelical crowd. Daily Show ads would have probably been very effective for Olson’s movie, Flock of Dodos, but they were wasted effort for this one.
One thing Olson is entirely correct on is that likability is important. I have no illusions that I’m a charming fellow, but in my public talks you may have noticed that everyone complains that I don’t breathe fire or eviscerate any creationists on the podium. That’s intentional — going all Lewis Black only works when you’ve got an audience that already agrees with you. However, the other essential component of a successful media strategy has got to be strength. Haven’t we learned that yet from years of watching Republican political tactics? They don’t win on just presenting perspectives agreeable to their electorate, but by being vicious bastards who won’t compromise. Olson is telling us to be like Jimmy Carter, and ignoring the fact that the environment right now is dominated by the likes of Dick Cheney, unlikable thug. Even worse is that he’s forgetting that it was Carter vs. Reagan, who was both likable and put up a good illusion of strength.
What we really need is someone who is fiercely likable, someone who can be admired while they’re fighting for science. I fear that what everyone else is calling for is the scientist as friendly, unchallenging wimp who will make the public feel safe and able to go on believing whatever nonsense they want … when what we really need is someone to shake up the bogosity of the general public’s delusions.