Stranger Fruit

I’m in better mood ….

Earlier on today I posted the following which seems to have disappeared from the page:

After spending yesterday evening preparing for classes by watching the ICR video Thousands … Not Billions and the ID flick The Privileged Planet, I awake to read this. Randy Olson, following an MFA in filmmaking from USC, has decided that the way to improve evolution education is basically to engage in sort of dumbed-down glossiness that anti-evolutionists specialize in; all surface flash with little real depth. Olson seems to have forgotten that communicating science is difficult and it’s complexity doesn’t yield to simple Hollywoodization. Taking a bunch of acting classes – which he seems to suggest is necessary – wont solve that problem.


I don’t know what happened, but the original appears to still be here. In any case, I’ve reposted because PZ has linked to it and has said something I agree with:

Maybe it’s my own high dork factor talking, but I’m not too receptive to people telling me I need movie star qualities to be able to support science, or that we have to pander to superficial sensibilities to communicate a message. Our strengths are depth, intelligence, evidence, history, the whole damn natural world, and just plain having the best and most powerful explanation for its existence. Don’t tell us to dumb it down and glitz it up—I think people should be smart enough to understand it, and there’s grandeur enough in it that dressing it up in rhinestones is just silly. We need to know how to communicate real science, not Hollywood cartoon science, to people.

A commenter on the original thread said:

I get the feeling that you don’t regard communication with laymen as being worthwhile. In fact, as I read your post, I get the impression that you feel that that sort of activity is demeaning to science or to the scientist.

Hardly, especially since I spend my time communicating science to laypeople as a teacher!

Look, I agree that scientists could do a better job communicating their ideas. I don’t, however, agree that Olson is correct in his suggested method.


  1. #1 Dr. Free-Ride
    February 17, 2006

    Don’t you love how teaching is disregarded as a species of communication? (Also, isn’t blogging also?)

    I’m in total agreement with both your claims here: better communication from scientists (to each other and to laypeople) can only be a good thing, but it’s got to be about substance rather than flash.

    Otherwise, how would you be able to tell the reality-based community from the politicians?

  2. #2 CanuckRob
    February 17, 2006

    Teaching certainly is a species of communication but the “public” are a different species of audience. different. Lay persons (not the IDers) that are not your students, that may not have much in the way of science education and who are busy in their own lives (but that do elect people)or those that engage in public life are not going to be reached in the same way that you reach students. They are surrounded by sound bites of all descriptions and frankly the science sound bites will be ignored (unless they are sensational and super simplified to the point of wrongness)because to many they are either “too hard” or “not relevant”. The trick is to find a way that educates while being interesting to those people. Humour works (Mythbusters on TV, Science of Discworld books). So does having a good looking, witty, charming and articulate host (Brian Greene, Sagan etc).

    In other words science needs to grow and encourage more popularizers that are qualifed in their field have the approprate skills and desire to particpate in the public arena that way. Fund them through whatever professional organizations you belong to ar start a new one. I think that could work.

  3. #3 Art Kaufmann
    February 18, 2006

    Argh! You lost all my beautiful prose! (Kidding… my comment wasn’t terribly good.)

    As the author of the comment quoted, I want to thank you for responding to it. It was much harsher than I had intended — I certainly didn’t mean to impugn your abilities as a teacher, but I managed to do so in any case. Sorry.

    I do, however, think that we’re talking about two different sets of laymen here (I am making assumptions about who you teach, so feel free to correct me.) In general, I would assume that your students: 1) Have somehow chosen to learn from you; 2) are a bit smarter and more receptive to learning than the average person-on-the-street; and 3) have a motiviation to learn the material (grades.)

    Archie Bunker, sitting in front of his TV has none of those characteristics. He rejects science because he’s frightened and it threatens his world view. Somewhere along the way, he lost the desire to learn and grow. Reaching him, to at least cure the active antipathy to science, is tough. The language and style one uses to communicate with an uninformed student and an ignorant Archie are quite different.

    I think that what science needs is a few more Bill Nye the Science Guy (and the grownup versions as well) to complement the John Lynches and PZ Myers that we already have. More March of the Penguins to complement the tons of good, accurate but generally inaccessible communications that scientists generate.

    One phrase from Dr. Myers’ post is very telling to me:

    I think people should be smart enough to understand it, and there’s grandeur enough in it that dressing it up in rhinestones is just silly.

    Would that this were true. But it’s not and, I’m afraid, it will never be. If we are truly the reality-based community, then we need to acknowlege the full range of reality, including that of human nature.

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