Expelled! Induced Conversations and the Future of Science, Medicine and Hollywood

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!


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Al Gore's documentary also elicited a lot of blogosphere commentary, so I'm not sure if we can hold Expelled up as the first doc to be discussed by bloggers. It's certainly the first to generate so much passion among its commentators, though.

While the blogosphere has considerable influence within its own world, at this point its influence on the public at large is still pretty minimal. Like many other bloggers, I wrote a lot of column-inches on Expelled, but not with the expectation it would reach a wide audience, just a select portion of the geekier Web 2.0 population.

That said, your observations are on target. Hollywood (and other producers) might just have to consider the "advance publicity" of the blogosphere when marketing/releasing their fare. For all we know, Premise Media might have done just that.

Eventually the blogosphere will take over. We need to assure that all the good bloggers are in charge and the bad bloggers are banished when that happens.

By Elizabeth (not verified) on 23 Apr 2008 #permalink

I really don't know that the larger degree of acceptance and respect given to physical science is all that related to the good communicators in these disciplines you claim we've had. I think it is much more related to the fact that the advances related to physical sciences were in some ways more impressive and undeniable.

And what I mean by that isn't so much that many people think going to the moon is more important than modern medicine, but rather that medicine has always existed in one form or another (admittedly in a pretty bad form before modern medicine), and there have been many incremental advances (antibiotics, vaccines are probably the biggest jumps historically). My point is though that people always had some type of medicine (or thought they did) and it just got better and better. People always sort of believed there were miraculous cures and such things, and hey, now there actually are.

On the other hand, flat out physically going to the moon was an absolutely inconceivable thing for anyone who believed in the old religious view of the sky above us. On the evil side, the power of nuclear bombs and the fear of the possibility of actually destroying the whole world with them was also something no one could have even imagined beforehand.

I think the undeniable fact of these achievements which were just unimaginable (unlike miracle cures let's say), and the power of physical science that they so clearly demonstrated had I think alot more to do with the acceptance and respect for physical science, than the good communicators.

I mean sure, I did read Feynman's books the first time when I was about 12 or 13, but I am a physics grad student, how many people outside of science have actually read anything by these "great communicators"? Probably far less than all the people impressed by the achievements of these sciences.

Coriolis: You might be right, but it is true that curing cancer is impressive.

Also, in opposition to my argument is timing. The big cosmic discoveries were earlier, so Sagan was earlier.

And yes, all this actually applies only to those who read and stuff. The big challenge facing us now is the number of people who watch the increasingly woo-filled cable "science" shows.

This line bothered me but it took some time before I could finally address it:

We can intuitively understand, because of our life experience, gravity as a force.

This is, I think, a common misconception. Just as the average person out there doesn't really understand evolution, the average person doesn't really understand gravity. And I'm not even talking about the Relativistic model, just the traditional Newton.

Yeah, sure, they might know "32 ft/sec^2" and be able to talk shop about terminal velocities and wind resistance and that sort of thing, but that's not gravity. 32ft/s2 is an effect of gravity and was what Galileo confirmed.

That's just the nature of 1) the fact that the mass of most things ON the earth is so close to 0 when compared to the mass of the earth, and 2) the surface of the earth being relatively flat compared to the depth of the planet to the center of gravity. it's a mathematical derivative of approximations, just as Newton's laws of motion can be derived from Einstein merely by realizing we're all moving next to no speed at all compared to light.

Newton's original idea, about *mutual* attraction, is really incomprehensible. The average person really could not get a handle on this idea that he is pulling on the Earth with EXACTLY the same "force" that the earth is pulling him.

They certainly don't "get" the idea that we're gravitationally attracted to everything around us, because that would imply that the "Force" (in the Star Wars sense) is real and we should be attracting everything in sight, but that doesn't happen? (yeah, I know, magnetic resistence is MUCH more powerful).

For that matter, the average person really doesn't understand, in spite of our teaching, the difference between weight and mass. Even I didn't actually get into the mathematical nitty-gritties of it until being a senior, and in my school system (and most), students actually don't have to take that 4th (or even a 3rd) year of science to get that far.

To conceptualize it and make it real, they would have to try to move a heavy-mass object on the "vomit comet" to realize it still takes a lot of force to move (or stop) something even without ground resistence. Yeah, it weighs "nothing", but it still has mass.

People understand things up to the point of their experience, and most people's "experience" with Gravity doesn't come close to the realization of Newton's law. His discovery is as unintuitive to experience as any Science has ever come up with.

By Joe Shelby (not verified) on 24 Apr 2008 #permalink

Joe: I totally see and agree with your point. We don't really get gravity properly. But we do understand it in the sense that we know stuff falls down, and with a little bit of consideration we can get things like the car rolls down hill but struggles up hill (using more gas), the water falls down at a water fall and a hydro plant can get energy out of it, and so on. But what is happening at the tiny molecular level is not in our experience except as the occasional useful metaphor.

But what is happening at the tiny molecular level is not in our experience except as the occasional useful metaphor..

Like the fact that "contact" is impossible (without serious relativistic effects) - that magnetic bonding and repulsion, means that molecules will, like trying to push the negative ends of two magnets together, never actually touch each other.

My father-in-law as a physics teacher liked to contrast Gravity and E&M with the following: if you jump off the Empire State, it will take Gravity 31.2 seconds (or some such figure) to almost by not quite reach the pavement, and Magnetism a millionth of a second to stop you.

I think my gravity complaint was for even the more general, because it's been a common thread in the "law" vs "theory" aspect (misunderstanding) of evolution-denial. They'll brag about the "Law" of gravity but they don't really get what the Law was. The Law was f = G m1 m2/ r^2, not "32 feet per second" (yeah, many anti-science nuts also forget the squared part and thats an acceleration). They will, as you did here, brag about gravity being "obvious", but not realize that they're only seeing the effects of the real gravity.

So my general complaint - we "get" gravity by experience but we don't "get" gravity. Similarly, the average person "gets" biology but doesn't "get" it for real without evolution, but evolution is also unintuitive when you look around and see "kinds" that never change. At a certain point, ALL of the sciences cross the line from bluntly obvious to totally unintuitive. Even geology had a lot of resistance to the now plainly obvious (but it isn't), continental drift, because it violated experience and intuition.

In thinking about this, I'm guessing its this aspect that is at the heart of the complaints about popularizing "science", including those of the anti-"framing" side (not to bring up that can of worms again). The implication of Nisbet's approach is to coax the material into a form that makes it intuitive (or if I recall their terms, palatable) to the audience, but the reality of science has ALWAYS been that the problems with perception and the resistance comes because it is inherently UNintuitive. To deny that violation of intuition, that letting go of obvious certainties, is to deny what makes it science.

The trick is to present that uncertainty in such a way as to not mean "so your non-science crap might be just as good as ours", which is one of the current ID weapons in their PR arsenal. THAT is what I think the "framers" have never actually accomplished on the evo issue the way they have with the Global Warming issue.

By Joe Shelby (not verified) on 24 Apr 2008 #permalink

Interesting post.

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.

Is that anything like the chronosynclasticinfindibulum?

Why did Diderot start this project, l'Encyclopédie ?

Have we forgotten, that the scientific quest comes first from our need to understand the world that surounds us, before even our need to optimize the exploitation of its resources. The constant questioning of the child is here to remind us. We need to understand, before we need to take.

Unfortunately, it is quite clear that nowadays, the percentage of the budgets of private and public scientific research laboratories which is dedicated to explaining and stimulating questioning on scientific matters over people's lifetimes (and not only during their few science education years) is ridiculously small.

Communicating science to the general public should not be seen as a nice to have, but it is, above all, the reason, why we do science. When we forget it, we forget what the enlightenment was all about. And that is very, very sad.

Of course, there are many skilled communicators, and wonderful stories to tell. But let's not forget one little detail : financing.

We need to have an open debate in scienceblogs as to how one creates a bandwaggon effect, a charity, like the religious ones have it, which can finance the efforts that have been forgotten by our politicians.

By negentropyeater (not verified) on 25 Apr 2008 #permalink

I believe that organizations such as TED (ted.com) are providing another approach to education by showing growth, experimentation, excellence in various areas of science, technology and the arts.

By Jeff McKenna (not verified) on 04 May 2008 #permalink

I believe that organizations such as TED (ted.com) are providing another approach to education by showing growth, experimentation, excellence in various areas of science, technology and the arts.

By Jeff McKenna (not verified) on 04 May 2008 #permalink