Movie Night

Last night I drove into New Haven, Connecticut, to catch an advanced screening of Flock of Dodos, a movie about evolution and intelligent design. Afterwards I took part in a panel discussion. It was an interesting evening, not only because the movie was quite good, but because it provoked a noisy discussion.

I don't want to give away too much of Flock of Dodos, because I would prefer that a lot of people get a chance to see it for themselves. Randy Olson, the creator of the film, spoke after the film and explained that the version we saw was still a bit rough around the edges, and he's getting ready to enter it into various film festivals and hopes to get distribution after that. I wish him well.

To be brief, then, Olson is a biologist-turned-filmmaker who got a bit baffled by the rise of intelligent design and decided to investigate, heading back to his native state of Kansas. He talked to school board members, intelligent design advocates, and evolutionary biologists. Olson's a friendly, open guy who can share a beer with a creationist without getting it splashed in his face. But in all the laid-back conversation, he offers some pretty penetrating observations of the intelligent design movement. A creationist board of education member winks and smiles with a mix of flirtation and cynicism. An intelligent design advocate declares that all biology textbooks promote the lies of Haeckel about embryos and evolution, only to start paging through the textbooks in his office in a futile search to find any mention of Haeckel. A cardiologist who is one of the leading champions of intelligent design in Kansas doesn't even know which scientific meetings he would go to present his research, if he had any research to present.

Olson weaves in interviews with evolutionary biologists, who clearly make Olson want to bang his head against the wall. They've got the science right, but they can be inarticulate and high-handed, torpedoeing their own cause. Their efforts at communication to the public are stiff and a bit arrogant. Meanwhile, intelligent design advocates have hired the PR firm that brought us Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

The movie does a nice job of conveying the past few years of school-board shenanigans, including the Dover case. And it's funny. It hits the same personal, low-key humor struck so nicely by Morgan Spurlock in Supersize Me. Spurlock made his point about American eating habits more effectively than a semester's worth of lectures from nutritionists. Olson makes his point about the emptiness of Intelligent Design more effectively than a lot of scientists themselves have.

The premiere packed an auditorium at Yale with a couple hundred people creating all sorts of fire hazards. After the movie, the other panelists and I sat down to talk. John Hare, a theologian at the Yale Divinity School, said he enjoyed seeing the intelligent design sympathizers portrayed not as yahoos but as people, as well as seeing evolutionary biologists portrayed as bastards. (His word, not mine--the first time I think I've heard a theologian use the word bastard, now that I think of it.) Hare was half-joking; he explained that a lot of the trouble over evolution--needless trouble, in his view--came from those who would try to explain every tiny facet of human existence as the product of an adaptation finely honed by natural selection.

I talked about how my own experience as a science writer certainly meshed with some of Olson's own experiences. I can remember getting into discussions with biologists five or six years ago about the rise of intelligent design, and they would just give me blank stares. When I explained what was happening beyond their lab, most of them seemed to assume that I could only be talking about ten or eleven people very far away. Once intelligent design began popping up in newspapers and magazines and education standards, the biologists did perk up and take notice. But their responses were not quite up to the challenge. I recounted how a bunch of representatives from a lot of scientific societies gathered for a meeting on challenges to evolution and came away a clarion call to action: each society would post a statement in support of evolution on their society's web site. Other biologists didn't even think it was their place to get involved. If not them, I wondered, who?

The other panelist was Richard Prum, an ornithologist who has done lots of important work on the evolution of birds. (I've reported on some of his work in the New York Times and elsewhere.) He put up with our semi-constructive criticism pretty well. He was asked to come up with a short and sweet slogan to go up against the creationist "Teach the Controversy." Harkening back to ID advocate Michael Behe's testimony at the Dover trial that astrology would qualify as science under his definition, Prum suggested, "Teach Astrology."

But for all the goodwill, you could tell that Prum felt that some of Olson's complaints were a bit unfair. In Flock of Dodos, the biologists all come off as stiff, tongue-tied, and unemotional. That portrayal serves Olson's message, which is that biologists have to become much more media-savvy or risk the fate of the dodos that give the movie its title. But Prum pointed out that evolutionary biologists aren't just sitting around at the Discovery Institute getting paid to write op-ed pieces. They've got full-time jobs doing science and teaching students. It's more important for them to do good research than to put out a snappy press release.

The issue continued to itch away under Prum's skin when the discussion was opened up for questions from the audience. One person asked what Olson actually thought scientists needed to do in the current climate, and Olson began to talk about how scientists needed to learn to be more spontaneous. And in the middle of Olson's reply, Prum grabbed the microphone and said, "You want spontaneous?" He stood up, his chair flying back, and held the mike a bit too close to his mouth so that his voice was weirdly fuzzy. I'm obsessed with birds, he said. Believe me, it's not hard to get excited about evolution. But we just don't have that much effect on what people are thinking in this country.

It was a disconcerting sight, because Prum has the very cheerful, easy-going demeanor of a man who loves birds and the fact that he gets to study them for a living. (Exhibit A) At first Prum may have thought his outburst would be a funny joke, and a dramatic way to respond to Olson's jabs. But the passion really did sweep through him, to the point that his hands were shaking. And the audience broke into wild applause.

Olson just smiled and said, "Now, that's spontaneous."

I think Olson's portrait of scientists was a bit of a caricature. Ken Miller of Brown has proven that biologists can talk about evolution in an engaging way, and his testimony played a key role in the devastating crushing of intelligent design in Dover, Pennsylvania. And while some scientists still think that issuing a statement on a web site no one visits is bold action, other scientists have explored new ways of communicating evolution, from games to blogs. But there can be a lot of truth in caricature, especially when it's stammering and stumbling to explain evolution in plain terms.

The evening ended with a student in the back making the case that, like it or not, evolutionary biologists do work that has profound implications for people's lives. "If I have to quote Spiderman," he said, "it's a great power you have. And with great power comes responsibility."

And with Spiderman on our minds, we decamped for beer.


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I have a friend who is into astrology. He's a good musician and a great guy, so I don't just come out and tell him that I think astrology is totally ludicrous. He's writing a book on the subject, has some accreditation in it, and is generally into it. For his part, he does not emphasize the predictive nature of astrology. There seems to be two things he talks about. One is that the things that astrology talks about are not so much facts, but issues to contemplate. The other is that the goal of a performing a reading is to provide long term healing in the life of the subject. So, when he talks about the return of Saturn to where it was when you were born (about 30 years) he talks about what it will mean to your mid life crisis. It's irrelevant that Saturn has anything to do with it - the mid life crisis is likely at that time. It's therapy.

I was going to give Flock of Dodos a miss, but now it seems it might give some better hints on how to handle ID and other similar topics. Dropping science facts on the scientifically illiterate has the same effect that Bible Thumpers get when they drop Bible verses on the hapless as the Word Of God - which is to say, it generates resentment.

Approaches like the BBC radio program (and podcast) The Naked Scientists, who have real scientists, but don't take itself completely seriously seem quite positive. The Slacker Astronomy humor is also quite positive.

I currently rate Astrology as potentially valuable, where I've found no redeeming value to ID.

Well. I'm off to talk about Astronomy to school kids.

The point Olsen is making about scientists not being up to the snappy phrases, sound bites, of the ID'ers and YEC'er's is explemplified in the recent LA Times piece about YEC Ham's engaging od children around bible stories (though it seemed to have written by Ham's PR firm) and the clergy engaging adults on Evolution Sunday (NY Times). They are not only worlds apart in effectiveness and in ability to capture the press.
It is unfortunate that Olsen did not present scientisits who are effective in presenting the case for evoution science. I am not sure I understand this point of his movie? To rally scientists? To play up to the stereotype of nerdy, inarticulate scientists?


By Martin Weiss (not verified) on 14 Feb 2006 #permalink

The Discovery Instute is only one of a number of well funded, conservative organizations dedicated to promoting conservative religious objections to current cultural trends. Bruce Chapman, president of the Discovery Institute, is the former vice-president of the American Anglican Council, an organization dedicated to damaging the Episcopal Church over it's stand on gay issues. The AAC is funded in part by the Institute for Religion and Democracy which carries this anti-gay crusade to mainstream churches. Both the Discovery Institute and the IRD have received funding from reclusive millionaire Howard Ahamanson.,6903,1061442,00.html

Thoughtful theologian, hmmm. Also a philosopher and biologist-turned-philosopher leave us to wonder while complaining about asking evolutionary theory to explicate 'all' of human behavior:

L. Weiner & R.E. Ramsey
Leaving Us to Wonder: An Essay on the Questions Science Can't Ask
State University of New York Press, 2005.

Fine review of a preview and panel. Thanks, Carl Zimmer!

By David B.Benson (not verified) on 14 Feb 2006 #permalink

Interesting. I do think there is a definite need for science spokespersons in the United States right now. With the passing of Carl Sagan, there hasn't really been much of a place for a national science spokesman in the US.

In Canada, fortunately, we still have the very passionate and articulate David Suzuki, along with "The Nature of Things" and "Quirks and Quarks" on the CBC tv and radio stations, both of which help foster an appreciation of science and science-related issues (like environmentalism) in the population at large.

Thanks for the great review.

While criticism of PR-challenged scientists is appropriate, strong criticism should also be directed at the so-called "religious moderates" who sit back and allow fundamentalists of all stripes to force their worldview on the rest of us. Hijacking religion happens in more places than the Middle East.

The review gave me a bit of an epiphany on why, 150 years later, Creationists still insist on using the names, "Darwin", "Darwinism", "Darwinist" in their arguments. I used to just kind of shrug, belwildered, that they would continue to talk about him, as if 150 years of continuing science and discoveries are somehow less important for them to try to counter. I suppose I just assumed that maybe they found it easier to critize the errors in Darwin, and act like it was modern evolutionary theory, than to talk about EVERYTHING SINCE. Now, I'm not so sure.

Charles Darwin was a scientist, but not as we know science in 2006. He was more of a gentlemen naturalist who, when it came time to publish his findings, did so for a wide audience, not just for fellow scientists. And stylistically, he was gentle, thoughtful, sensitive (to those he KNEW would be upset by his theory) and PERSUASIVE.

Even though certain aspects of his theory have been since shown to be incorrect, other points improved upon, etc. the FACTS of the basic underlying principles are both undeniable to this day, AND presented in a way that any thoughtful NON-scientist can appreciate and understand. He is STILL the worst nightmare of modern-day Creationist/I.D. PR departments. Even though the science of evolution is only stronger than it was (by far) than back in 1849, the personality of Darwin, combined with the basic theory (decent through modification by Natural Selection) is to this day a much more difficult PR problem (winning the "hearts and minds") than modern evolutionary theory presented by condescending or elitist educators and scientists.

Interestingly, yesterday a group of biologists (including me) and high school science teachers got together for a talk and panel discussion about evolution here at Kansas State University, and then I read this review. I haven't seen the movie; I will wait to comment on it afterward.

But I do share Rick Prum's discomfort with the expectation that research scientists need to "do something" to get the message out. Most of us teach as well as do research, and so we are trying to get the message out in that venue. Apparently that is not enough.

But isn't it also just a tad disingenuous to expect research scientists, who are trained (long and hard) in other disciplines, to compete on a level playing field with folks who not only have lots of time, and lots of experience with media manipulation, but also have no problem with telling outright lies? Scientists are unfortunately restricted to the facts, and facts are not going to win out over dissembling in a public opinion arena in this country. If you want other examples of that, look at public opinion polls about WMD and torture and wiretapping. Clever repetition of non-factual statements can be very convincing, even if the facts are otherwise.

Additionally, lots of folks want simple answers, and evolution is not a simple proposition. You need to know some facts, lose some misconceptions, and then think about some concepts. I will probably be branded as an elitist for saying this, but one cannot ignore the reality that this level of intellectual effort is just too much for lots of the citizens of this country. They may not prefer to be fooled, but they sure don't seem to notice it when they are...

So maybe we should blame the whole education system for that sad reality, rather than just pin it all on the reluctance of research scientists to be "spontaneous".

By Dave Rintoul (not verified) on 16 Feb 2006 #permalink

Dave Rintoul said, "But isn't it also just a tad disingenuous to expect research scientists, who are trained (long and hard) in other disciplines, to compete on a level playing field with folks who not only have lots of time, and lots of experience with media manipulation, but also have no problem with telling outright lies"?

True enough, Dave. And, unlike the days of Darwin, we have become a HIGHLY SPECIALIZED society - not just in science. So now the job of a Carl Zimmer is more important than ever. Guys like you do your work and guys like Carl need to be out there with you, and then explaining it to the rest of us - in a way that our non-scientific minds can grasp.

Do people actually WANT to be lied to? In many cases yes. But you can't worry about them. Even though they may be a sizable minority. Never worry about the 20% at the two ends of the spectrum, but instead focus on the 60% in the middle.

Per John's comment, I agree that it's a lot to ask of scientists to do the work of PR and marketing professionals. That's sort of my job.

Making good science intellectually accessible to the general public is an issue very close to my heart. As a non-scientist I am thankful for the work of people who do (did) it well: Gould, Sagan, Attenborough, Suzuki, and Mr. Zimmer among others. To them I owe a debt of wonder and satisfied curiosity.

As I said, I'm a non-scientist; in fact I work as a strategist at an advertising agency. On a daily basis, I struggle with my clients (among them some quite tech-heavy firms) to mediate between the jargony, literal messages and the most effective delivery of those messages. As every good ad exec knows, in order to be effective you've got to know your audience above all else. I think it's worthwhile to apply this same lens to the evolution--ID argument.

I maintain that most important segment for the message of evolution to reach is neither the staunch creationist nor the ID advocate but a far more substantial portion of the general public--the concerned (voting) people that have not committed to a side for the simple reason that most have yet to be exposed first-hand to a situation wherein they would have to make a decision. At a glance, they are generally religious (but not extremely so), care about education, get nervous about the economy, are against the Iraq war but fear terrorism, and like to think of themselves as open-minded but see a creeping erosion of family values.

To them, ID fits nicely into their middle-of-the road values set (see link for revealing statistics).

ID lets the average voter span the "progressive" (i.e. science-minded) and the "somewhat religious" very neatly--professing a belief in ID is tantamount to saying, "I'm no religious zealot and I recognize that science is important and that evolution happens, but I also believe that there is order in the universe and not just random chance." It's a movement that permits fence-sitting. It's the easy choice. Why else would the Vatican want to disassociate with ID?

We "evolutionists" like to characterize IDer's as a marginal group of zealots intent of getting religion into the classroom, and I would say that most of the ID advocates being quoted in the media today are just that. However, in doing so we're ignoring the huge lukewarm appeal of the ID philosophy. We spend so much time debunking the pseudo-science and creationist underpinnings that we overlook the fact that ID makes sense to a lot of people. We ignore the power of a philosophy that asks seemingly innocent questions like "How could some random mish-mash of proteins have become a human eye that can appreciate the beauty of a Van Gogh?"

Do you really think that the voting public will be favorably swayed by another person pointing out the difference between a scientific theory and "theory" theory? I myself have often called out the distinction, along with just about every other argument available, and have yet to make a dent.

Please don't mistake my comments above for an endorsement of ID or even grudging admiration of the strategy behind it. I also don't want to deride the words and actions of the scientists who have spoken out for good science. If there's one thing to take away from this rambling post it's the thought that maybe it's time to try thinking from the target audience's perspective.

As an ad executive/science buff, I'll see what I can do.

By Dan Cabacungan (not verified) on 16 Feb 2006 #permalink

Dan, I didn't find your post to be "rambling" at all. Everything you said was important and made a great deal of sense. Of course, I'm biased. You see I'm kind of a lightweight marketing guy myself. So I totally "get" what you are saying. And it dovetails with what I said earlier about ignoring the lunatic fringe (and that isn't directed at any one group) but instead work with ideas that appeal to the great center. And while I only have "some" college, and no science background whatsoever, I can say that those with an elitist attitude might have some right to their position considering the link you provided. Just take a careful look at two columns - the "No High School Diploma" vs "College Graduate". It says a LOT.

I'd also like to add a couple of names to your list of people who make hard science accessable to folks just like me - Dawkins (who, unfortunately, is also very abrasive - but SO READABLE), Jonathan Weiner and John Barry. And I'm a huge Zimmer guy! (Not kissing butt - he ain't gonna do nothin' for me)!

Hi - A big thanks to Carl for such a nice write up about the screening (which was a huge amount of fun). At each of the panel discussions for the first round of screenings of "Flock of Dodos" people asked, "So what can we, as evolutionists, do about this problem?" Here's a summary of some of my responses.


(Why is it this list took me all of one minute to outline? Could it be that the problems are so immense that it's easy to make a lot of progress with even a tiny bit of effort?)

1) Quality Control - so much of the mass communication of evolution is so dull and uninspiring. Two specific examples - the 8 part Evolution series by PBS released a few years ago and the half hour video produced last year titled, "Evolution, Why Bother?" sponsored by AIBS. We ordered the 7th episode of the Evolution series, on God and religion, and found it unwatchable. At one of my recent screenings a member of the audience offered up that she ordered the second episode for a museum display and found the same thing - five minutes into it they shut it off. The AIBS video is tragically bad - nothing but talking heads and still images. It doesn't matter how little budget they had, any introductory film student could have explained to them that film/video is a visual medium. The primary communication takes place through the images presented. When all you show are people's faces talking, you are saying virtually nothing. These sorts of productions need the simple, honest feedback of evolutionists who have purchased their videos, shown them to their neighbors, and watched them fall asleep. Just send them a note and say this is not good enough. Raise the bar. Its that simple. When evolution media looks bad, evolutionists look bad. Cost of this Suggestion (to give media producers, including me, your critical feedback) to you: $0

2) Attitude - "Never rise above." It's one of the simple principles we learned in acting class. Whenever you condescend (as perhaps I did in the above paragraph) you lose the sympathy of your audience. Plain and simple. When evolutionists call intelligent designers idiots, its fine among evolutionists, but for the broader, less informed audience, it just makes everyone side with the people being condescended towards. It's a simple principle of mass communication. Furthermore, even though Stephen Jay Gould was my hero in graduate school nearly 30 years ago, today he is culturally irrelevant for undergraduates at the introductory level. His essays, which I cherished as an introductory student back then, are now unusable. My students at USC literally asked me to never assign them his essays again. They find his style and voice to be arrogant, elitist, condescending, verbose ... the list goes on and on. Cost of this Suggestion (to avoid rising above) to you: $0

3) Concision - it's a byproduct of the information era. Get used to it. In fact, practice it. The most effective means of communication is through storytelling. The shorter, more concise, and punchier the story you can tell, the greater the interest you will hold with an audience. And yes, as a scientist you need to maintain accuracy and sometimes even precision. But still, just practicing being shorter and punchier doesn't hurt anything. And you can see the results of this in Hollywood and advertising pitchmen - through sheer practice they are able to tell entire stories in very few words. Cost of this Suggestion (to practice being concise) to you: $0

4) Modernization - A CNN poll two years ago showed that 44% of Americans get their information on science and technology through television - more than any other medium. We are a television society. So why isn't the world of science communication geared towards this, even just a little bit? This is a question you can ask of the major science agencies. There are now dozens of science writing programs around the country, but no Science Electronic Media programs. Cost of this Suggestion (to realize how mass media has changed from print to electronic) to you: $0

5) Prioritization - Effective communication costs money. Real, cold, hard dollars. Scientists tend to look at communication as a funny, frivolous option that is meant mostly for those who are predisposed to it. As a result they sit through technical talks with bad visuals and poor sound, and really don't care. You can see this every week in your local departmental seminar. But on a higher scale, you see it in the tiny prioritization of science communication in research grants. Occasionally a few dollars are allocated for "outreach." But compare this sort of prioritization with businesses making commercial products where they accept the need to spend perhaps half of their budget on marketing and advertising. This isn't to say that scientists should turn themselves into cheap salesmen (which is the resentful complaint I hear to this suggestion), but the fact is the 9/11 Commission was the first government study to accept the need to allocate equal resources to its communication in order for it to make a difference. EVERYONE needs to accept we now live in an information-glutted world, and if you don't pay sufficient attention to the communication of what you have to say, then what you have to say will go unheard. It's a matter of priorities. Cost of this Suggestion (to allocate more funds to communication) to you: as much as you can afford - its time to make it hurt a little, to make up for the lack of prioritization in the past

6) Understanding - intellectuals are handicapped as mass communicators. I had this line in my film, but took it out because it sounded too insulting. But its true. Mass audiences do not follow people who think, they follow people who act. Intellectuals are trained to think, not act. Its one of their charming traits, but it's also a handicap. Try taking an acting class and you'll get to know about this intimately. And it's not that you necessarily need to do something about this right now, it's just that you need to start developing some awareness of it. Cost of this Suggestion (to consider the consequences of being too intellectual) to you: $0

7) Risk Taking/Innovation - every stock investor knows you allocate at least 10% of your stock portfolio to high risk ventures. The voices of mass communication of science today are very homogenized. There are no signs that formal investment in high risk innovation of science communication has been taking place. You need to look at your science agencies and ask what percentage of their funding is going to high risk, wild ideas. They may sound irresponsible, but without them, you end up with homogenization. Come on, folks, we're talking about basic out-breeding dynamics here. Cost of this Suggestion (to take a few chances) to you: $0

8) Humor - it's yet another byproduct of the information era. It's no coincidence that news anchors, who were stoically serious 30 years ago, today tell jokes and tease each other. Or that The Daily Show on Comedy Central is the most popular form of news for kids (as well as A LOT of adults). Or that Michael Moore, Al Franken, and Bill Maher have become such popular news critics. It's a major channel of communication. So lighten up, evolutionists. Cost of this Suggestion (to lighten up a bit) to you: $0

9) Unscripted Media and the Mass Audience - this goes with modernization. Whether you realize it or not, the mass audience has changed drastically in just the past decade. About half of the acting jobs that were available a decade ago in Hollywood have now been lost to reality television, which is a form of "unscripted entertainment" (yes, I know that even reality shows have a great deal of structure to them, but they are still far more unscripted at the fine scale than the standard sitcoms and dramas). The mass audience is bored, and desperate for anything unpredictable. Which is why when Richard Prum, in a moment of brilliance, yanked the microphone away from me as I was droning on about the need for spontaneity, the audience erupted more than any other moment in the entire evening. Cost of this Suggestion (to be more spontaneous) to you: $0

10) Sincerity - and furthermore, even though Dr. Prum was a bit ungainly in his performance after grabbing the microphone, the audience didn't care. The gesture was so sincere, came from such a visceral level, showed such passion, such risk-taking, so much desire to act (rather than just pontificate as I was doing), that he stole their hearts. There is a great deal to be learned from that. Cost of this Suggestion (to be more sincere) to you: $0

Briefly, here are a few thoughts for Randy Olson to consider; perhaps he can integrate them into his thinking about this topic.

The summary of his suggestions about what "evolutionists" should do to increase their market share with the American public seems to be that they need to be inspired by several things that are symptomatic of the dumbing-down of American culture., e.g. marketing/advertising, reality shows and sound bites. In other words, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Maybe he's right, but he hopefully realizes that this is a bitter pill to swallow for folks who believe in fighting ignorance, and who also suspect that ignorance is encouraged by reality shows and sound bites. Or that the actual success of a lot of marketing/advertising schemes, as well as reality shows and sound bites, DEPENDS on ignorance... But that opinion will probably get me branded as "condescending!" Sigh.

There are also some other things (facts, not opinions) that need to be recognized. Randy writes:

"But on a higher scale, you see it in the tiny prioritization of science communication in research grants. Occasionally a few dollars are allocated for 'outreach.'"

Well, actually, EVERY NSF (National Science Foundation) research grant proposal contains a required section on outreach, and every successful grant applicant is required to detail how this research will be communicated to the general public. Presentations to civic groups, elementary and high school classes, etc are routinely included in every NSF grant budget. Many investigators also develop web resources, which can consume a fair bit of funding. The NSF funds a lot of basic science in this country, and probably is the single largest funding source for evolutionary biology. It is simply not true that this is a "tiny" priority item in those proposals; they will not get funded without concrete evidence that the researcher has strategies in place for exactly the kind of general public communication that everyone agrees we need in this area.

Additionally, the NSF funds a lot of education projects. See for some links and details. See for information about programs in elementary, secondary and informal education. We have an NSF summer program here at KSU for middle-school aged girls ( ), encouraging them to enter science careers and learn more about the natural world. This program grew out of the work of basic science faculty members, who take time from their labs and other duties to engage with the general public on this level. Sure, education and summer programs ain't movies, and they ain't reality TV. But hopefully they count for something! I guess my sole point here is to make sure that Randy understands what is being done. If he wants argue that it obviously isn't working, or isn't working fast enough or at a national level, that's his prereogative. But please don't ignore the efforts of scientists who actually are trying to do the things that he seems to think we need to do.

And other outreach happens too, even if it is unfunded. Our local school board just "seceded" from the intelligent-design-inspired science standards passed by the KS Board of Education. See for some details. That excellent result, the first of what hopefully will be many similar votes across the state, was prompted by a group of more than 200 science faculty members at KSU who urged the school board, without benefit of bumper stickers or TV shows, to stand up for science education. The board meeting was attended by 75 science faculty, who gave statements (mostly non-spontaneous, alas) and made arguments that seemed to make sense to the board members.

He also wrote:

"Scientists tend to look at communication as a funny, frivolous option that is meant mostly for those who are predisposed to it. As a result they sit through technical talks with bad visuals and poor sound, and really don't care. You can see this every week in your local departmental seminar."

Yep, lots of scientists give bad talks. But at least here (and almost certainly at lots of other institutions around the country), we don't think that communication is frivolous, and we really do care. Our graduate students (the next generation of scientists) are required to take a course that exposes them to presentation skills and teaching skills. We dissect the weekly seminars of visiting speakers, and make sure that our students don't repeat some of those mistakes. Communication skills are VITAL in science, and even more vital in teaching (which is something that scientists at universities are also required to do), and we do understand that. So I am not willing to accept the generalization that we don't care. Most decent science graduate programs have at least one required element that emphasizes the importance of communication skills. We don't study film-making, and our graduate stipends can't be used for "acting classes", but efforts are being made, and perhaps they can be acknowledged rather than being blown off with generalities about how we "really don't care."

As for the need for more humor, I certainly hope that all of you (Randy included) have seen the Flying Spaghetti Monster pages ( ). Even here in black-and-white Kansas, we know how to laugh. Or maybe we NEED to laugh, because it keeps us from crying... And I do admit I have a FSM bumper sticker on my car, even though I might be considered humor-impaired!

Sorry if this sounds defensive; I don't mean to be. But facts are important, and it might be helpful to let others know that the facts might be a bit different than how they are presented in Randy's "Top Ten" list of how to improve communication. Consider this comment to be my small effort to do just that!

By Dave Rintoul (not verified) on 17 Feb 2006 #permalink

I think another thing scientists need to remember is that their profession originated with the priests and shamans - those who watched the skies, who studied nature, who became the gurus and leaders that knew when to plant the crops, where to find the best game, how to heal the sick with which plants.

Scientists are not speareted from nature and "God", however the may define nature and/or God, they are quite literally caught up in how things work. Evolution and change are the natural way of the world, and this is lost to the ID people.

"God", even the Christian God, is not a changeless being, the concept of God evolves from the old testament to the new from a God of anger and punishmnet to one of love and compassion and forgiveness. Point this out to the ID people, and ask how was God able to evolve and change, and you will blow their minds.

You are just talking about TV, and it is just "the great wasteland" and, thus, largely irrelevant to anything important, e.g., science. Done.

The summary of his suggestions about what "evolutionists" should do to increase their market share with the American public seems to be that they need to be inspired by several things that are symptomatic of the dumbing-down of American culture., e.g. marketing/advertising, reality shows and sound bites. In other words, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

Argh. This completely misses the point.

Communication is not a frill. It is not dumbing down. It is an empirically based field of study that shows that you have to work HARD to get your point across. And from everything I learned from my years in communication research (albeit some time ago), if you think of it as "dumbing things down", you've lost--because you're ignoring decades of scientific research. In other words, you're doing the same thing that you've accused the intelligent design advocates of doing.

Perhaps it's my background. I have a background in the physical sciences, the social sciences and the arts. And I know that PRESENTATION MATTERS. From a theoretical and a pragmatic perspective, what Randy Olson said is absolutely dead on. If presentation didn't matter, any yahoo could Hamlet as well as Olivier. Unfortunately that's not the case....and even talent alone won't get the job done (you do know that actors study and work their tail off to do a part, right?).

Folks should lose the attitude about communication, because that attitude stems from ignorance. Learn what folks whose job it is to communicate actually DO, and apply it to their science.

By roger tang (not verified) on 23 Feb 2006 #permalink

Writing about one of my previous posts, Roger Tang says:

"Folks should lose the attitude about communication, because that attitude stems from ignorance. Learn what folks whose job it is to communicate actually DO, and apply it to their science."

I guess I didn't make myself clear enough (another failure on the part of scientists who try to communicate...). Let's try again, and hopefully these comments won't be taken out of context this time.

I can make a distinction between "communication" (about which I don't have an attitude) and "marketing" (about which I probably do have an attitude). In my mind, at least, communication is something that disseminates information that sticks to the facts and truth. I try to do that in my research and in my teaching. Marketing is often (not always) associated with untruths (see WMD) or incomplete truths (see TV ads for prescription drugs).

In both cases, I understand that presentation matters. In both cases, I understand that there is plenty of empirical science (e.g. Zull's "The Art of Changing the Brain", which I just finished reading) to guide us in how to present our perspectives to specific audiences. Both are important aspects of our society today. But I'd really rather be associated with only one of them...

Hope this helps

Having just recently begun sorting out what evidence there may be pro and con about ID I am struck by how frequently the issue is framed as creationism against evolution. In the two books best known for making scientific arguments in favor or ID, "Rare Earth" and "Priviliged Planet" the authors make no issue with evolution theory whatsoever. For "Flock of Dodos" to subtitle the work- "The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus" is an inauspicious opening line for what one would hope would be a fair-minded documentary on the subject. Likewise in the body of the films review, "evolution" and "natural selection" appear no less than 16 different times and in subsequent comments ID is quickly reduced to just another version of creationism. One expects these kinds of ad hominem arguments in debates over politics or religion but totally unexpected coming from a supposedly objective scientific community.

elf, I haven't read "The Privileged Planet", but now that you have mentioned it, I will soon. With regard to "Rare Earth", the thesis of the book is that the rather special conditions required for life as we know it are extremely rare in the universe, both in time and position. These are statements of probability, not of ID. But the universe is vast, indeed we don't know whether or not it is infinite. So Terra is, by the "Rare Earth" argument, unlikely. But obviously, not impossible. One cannot sensibly use this careful work by an astrobiologist as advocating, or even an apology for, ID.

By David B. Benson (not verified) on 15 Apr 2006 #permalink

Ok, I have now skimmed "The Privileged Planet", reading just enough to determine that, while the actual science appears to be mostly correct, the central argument commits a serious logical fallacy, namely arguing from the conclusion to the hypothesis. So the book is a waste of time, and I have wasted enough time on it.

By David B. Benson (not verified) on 22 Apr 2006 #permalink