The Elusive Flock of Dodos

DodoAs those of you who read the Pharyngula post know, Randy Olson’s new film, Sizzle, will be coming out soon. And so, this got me thinking of Randy Olson and his style.

I intend to see Sizzle someday, but I haven’t yet, so I can only comment on the film he is perhaps bets known for, Flock of Dodos. I pestered my mum enough a few months ago to take me up Colorado State University at Fort Collins so that I could watch the free screening of it and the panel discussion with the film maker, a biology professor, a professor of… I think it was something along the lines of communicating or public speaking, and a philosophy professor.

Well, it was a good film. He did do a rather good job of making the concepts simple enough so that the non-intellectual folk could understand the arguments for evolution that were presented. However, there was another message woven into the film, a tap on the shoulder to those who were already pro-science… scientists are bad communicators. Scientists aren’t very fun to hang out with and come up with lame slogans. Scientists need to be more sexy and come up with better slogans to be good communicators.

This did give me something to think about. How can scientists be better communicators to the non-intellectual without compromising their message too badly?

But, there was something about the rolling of a dictionary definition of “big words” across the screen every time a scientist said something that was outside of the normal vocabulary that gave me the most uneasy feeling about this message of being a better communicator. I am very passionate about trying to solve the problem of anti-intellectualism, and I agree that much of the problem lies in the poor communication between scientists and the non-intellectual. The hugest problem I encounter when trying to overcome anti-intellectual sentiments, however, is not that I can’t make it understandable but that the anti-intellectual is unwilling to complete the bridge I try to construct. I try to explain myself to them, but they have lost patience before I begin to define “audacity” and their brain has already shut down.

Flocks of Dodos seemed to be encouraging anti-intellectualism by making fun of scientists, though it seemed to effectively get the message across. This bothered me.

And so the movie ended, the biologist, communicator, philosopher, and Randy Olson got behind their little panel table. The philosophy professor had a PowerPoint to go through before the discussion started.

It was a terribly made PowerPoint, at that. Random bullet points sporadically placed in front of some sentences, all white background with plain black text, bad formatting… but, a person’s inability to make good PowerPoints does not mean that they have a bad argument… necessarily.

He took a sentence from the Judge Jones ruling from the Dover trial that said, and I’m paraphrasing here, “ID proponents make the false assumption that evolution is atheistic” and proceeded to point to some Atheists who he felt fit the sentence.

Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, E. O. Wilson, etc. were all making false assumptions.

I found this to be a rather sleazy trick, personally. I found it to sort of be like he was saying “Judge Jones was on your side, therefore if he was correct Dawkins, Dennett, Wilson are all curmudgeon militant Atheists!”

Yes, Dawkins uses evolution as an argument for atheism. Obviously, evolution would contradict the literal text of Genesis. I think he makes it fairly clear that he’s mostly concerned with the dangers of religious fundamentalism and less so with moderates. Dawkins still has a very good point. If you have a purely natural process generating the most complex and most beautiful forms we see today, obviously you have to call into question whether there really is a supernatural creator. Evolution by natural selection doesn’t really leave much room for a god who intervenes with life on Earth, but it does leave room for a god who created the universe or something. Either way, he has said that he recommends Kenneth Miller’s book to creationists several times. Is he still allowed to state the obvious about how evolution doesn’t exactly support theism?

The philosopher then proceeded to say that in narrow-minded biology, there is only one answer, but in open-minded biology, there can be “multiple answers”. Sounded an awful lot like post-modernism to me, and I’m sorry but “post-modern science” is a complete and utter oxymoron. But, I decided that I’d just ask him what he meant later.

I remember in the panel discussion that they mentioned Ben Stein’s movie, talked about academic freedom, complained about how Richard Dawkins wasn’t good for Atheism… the same old spiel…

And so, the Q&A session came along, I took the opportunity to ask the philosophy professor what he really meant by there being “multiple answers” in open-minded biology. I phrased it something like “What do you mean by there being ‘multiple answers’? Either there is a god or there isn’t a god.”

He seemed very confused by the question and went off on a bit of a ramble about something which I can’t recall. I continued on another thing which I was being bothered about.

“The other thing I wanted to say is that I think that the reason why people find Dawkins to be so offensive is not so much what he is saying, but the fact that he’s talking about religion and that’s automatically politically incorrect…”

The philosophy professor interjected “I don’t know what would be political about his position at Oxford.”

“… No… ‘politically incorrect’ as in it’s offensive…”

And then Randy Olson went ahead and spontaneously took his mic, “I’d just like to say that I think that Richard Dawkins is a whiney bitch” and I just decided to go back to my seat, resisting the temptation to throw my arms into the air in frustration at the ad hom he had made for the sake of amusing the audience.

Had I really been that inarticulate when asking the philosopher my question, I wondered. On his way out, I managed to catch Randy Olson in the hall. “Just out of curiosity, was my question really that bad?” I asked him.

He told me that he had actually thought that it was a good question which the philosophy professor hadn’t understood, thereby screwing it up. He had wanted to speak up and point out that science doesn’t really work the way the philosophy professor had suggested open-minded biology should.

We then started talking about Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers and how he thought that they were “so militant and so aggressive”. I tried again to say that I didn’t think that they were really all that bad but that because they were talking about religion, people took it way too personally.

“Have you read PZ Myers’ blog? Have you heard a Dawkins interview recently?”

I asked him for a single quote to back him up about three times. The best he could do was tell me that Dawkins apparently calls theists “god-heads”, which I couldn’t recall ever hearing Dawkins say.

Overall, though, I think it was a good, short conversation with him until he had to leave. Mostly a pleasant person, I suppose…

But would I really want to hang out with him more than a scientist? Would I rather have a (root) beer with him than a group of evolutionary biologists? Another person probably would. Me? I try to get along with people but sometimes, oops, I’ll say a big word. I don’t know that I’d appreciate being made fun of for letting slip something different from the vernacular so that audiences can laugh at me because the screen goes black so that this can appear:


adj. and n.

Of a language or dialect: That is naturally spoken by the people of a particular country or district; native, indigenous.

The message of the film is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, creationists are ignunt dodos. On the other, scientists are also dodos because they are bad communicators. I think he missed a flock. It’s a huge flock of dodos, but they’re elusive for a reason… and I think that the reason is that flock is his audience.

This particular flock of dodos tends to be willfully ignorant. They fear what they don’t understand, and are hostile to those who say things that they don’t understand like. They speak the vernacular and don’t even bother reaching for a dictionary when they use, as Peter Griffin puts it, “big words, and small complex words.” They think that their opinion should be as valid as the experts. “What do they know, anyway? They can’t accurately predict tomorrow’s weather! Why would they know anything about global warming?” They generally don’t like to think critically or learn.

From my observation, anti-intellectualism runs rampant. This flock is a giant of a flock, encompassing the creationists and what seems to be the vast majority of the American people.

What if someone were to make a documentary calling the anti-intellectuals dodos? Can you poke fun at this flock of ignoramuses without being accused of being an elitist? Without losing your ability to communicate with your audience? Can you make them understand exactly why people like me find it humorous, and unfortunate, that they don’t know why the American Revolution was fought?

My Thoughts on Randy Olson

  1. Makes documentary which communicates science to the public. Add brownie points.
  2. Said documentary seems to help anti-intellectualism. Subtract brownie points.
  3. Documentary still gives me food for thought. Add brownie points.
  4. Makes the tiresome complaint that PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins are militant. Subtract brownie points.
  5. Has good sense of humour. Add brownie points.
  6. Isn’t a creationist nor a post-modernist. Add brownie points.

Giving him a total of… Er… I dunno. Wasn’t really tallying them up. Sort of just an abstract concept of how many brownie points he has… Let’s just give him a cupcake or something.



9 responses to this post.

  1. PZ gets pretty snarky sometimes, but militant? Dawkins I’ve never heard be anything but polite, even when he’s dealing with severe idiocy (that clip from The Root of All Evil? with Ted Haggard comes to mind). Neither of them pull any punches, but they let their arguments do the work instead of flinging insults.

    I haven’t seen Flock of Dodos, but it sounds like it’s worth seeing, regardless of whether its claims are justified. It certainly is true that the general public tends to have an abysmal understanding of science, but I think I’d agree with you that it’s impossible to communicate better when your audience doesn’t want to make an effort.

  2. Huh…interesting…

    I don’t think scientists are so much bad communicators, they just use a language that non-intellectuals can recognize as English except most of it is over their head. I like to think of it as sort of an invitation into an exclusive club – reach for the stars, be as smart as we are, and you’ll get to have your own little language to talk in.

    In their defense, I have to hang out with scientists very often (hell, I live with a Ph.D) and they only get wordy when it comes to their topic of study. Yes, they have a higher than average vocabulary (which I love to death, since I don’t have to define every other word I use when I’m with a scientist) but it really isn’t as mystifying as people think it is. People just aren’t used to being challenged in that way, so react negatively when the challenge does present itself. In my case, I’m challenged like that nearly every day, I get dragged to seminars all the time, have to eat dinner with visiting scientists, my dad’s Ph.D mentor is basically a second father to me, so I have no problem keeping up with them.

  3. I must take umbrage with your temerarious characterization that scientists and those of similar ilk are verbose and bombastic. This shows a lack of perspicacity on your part and perpetrates a deleterious image of intellectuals and cognoscente as being fustian because they fail to placate the hoi polloi through the use of plebeian language, platitudes and pedestrian prattle.

    Excuse my facetious tirade, I am not usually such a bombastic sesquipedalian. 😉

    I enjoyed your comments and actually related to them. I remember being accused of using “big words” since I was a kid. In fact, I rarely used words like I jokingly used above (some of which I needed to look up to double check). So, I did end up with a Ph.D. in physics, and today I associate with people who don’t feel three syllable words are condescending.

    In society in general, I do find there are many who are more comfortable trusting their “gut” than their head. Logic doesn’t work with them, and when scientists use specialized terminology, it makes matters worse and turns them off. I wrote a blog entry of my own after watching this movie a few months ago.

    I enjoy your writing style. Keep up the good work!

  4. Scientists are supposed to be good communicators, but to a knowledgeable audience who know the language. I have an advantage (or am doubly cursed, take your pick) in that I am both an evolutionary biologist and a high school science teacher. One of the key things I find is teaching the students the language – breaking words down to their roots makes the meaning plain (glycolysis = sugar splitting, chemiosmosis = chemical and concentration gradient). Of course, I have a receptive and captive audience, but they seem to come out of my class feeling a heck of a lot smarter than when they came in.

  5. Posted by Ordinary Girl on June 12, 2008 at 2:09 pm

    I think you hit the nail on the head with Randy Olson. He is anti-intellectual. After listening to him criticize atheists for being know-it-alls on Skepticality I sent him an email. He responded, so I have to give him credit for that, but he basically spewed that atheists were angry and there was no way anyone would ever like them so they deserved what they got. It’s become his schtick and he won’t see any other side.

    Although he’s a good filmmaker and probably a nice, funny person to those who know him, I don’t have respect for him. His anti-intellectual, anti-atheist rants only make him seem bitter and bigoted in my eyes, regardless of whether others find it amusing.

  6. You make a good point about breaking down words, BudgetAstronomer. In my ever so knowledgeable speech and debate class, a girl who had had an injury was talking about how the ER doctor had forgotten to give her subterranian stitches (I probably spelled that wrong because I haven’t seen it written).

    As usual, there was a chorus of “what the hell are you talking about” but really, you can tell what they are if you know what “sub” means.

  7. Subcutaneous stitches.
    Sub = under
    cutaneous = relating to skin, same root as cuticle.
    Unless of course she’s a mole person or golem, in which case it might be subterranean (under the earth).
    Sorry. Tough habit to break…

  8. Hm… seems she pronounced it terribly wrong then… or I’m going deaf. One or the other.

  9. Ah, how terrible… The poor scientists, trying to communicate as clearly and succinctly as they can instead accidentally make their audience feel stupid. Well, to Hell with that audience. I’d love to talk to someone so smart he (or even better, she) made me feel stupid. I wish I had to look up the occasional word to keep up with a conversation. I’ve got no sympathy for anti-intellectuals of any stripe. Their discomfort is 100% self-inflicted. The quest for knowledge is perhaps the most certain sign of sapience, or at least the beginnings of sapience, and to purposefully avoid that quest clearly defines the individual as not merely subhuman, but indeed subliving. Yes, I just said that anyone who doesn’t seek to learn is a zombie. If you don’t believe me, just take a walk around any office or school and take a look at the eyes of any random desk-monkey. Best odds, you picked a pair of soulless, empty eyes to look into. I hope it didn’t traumatize you too badly, but this IS the enemy, and we need to understand what we face: an overwhelming majority of intentionally and willfully mindless drones who not only refuse to rise up, but actively try to pull everyone else down.

    ..and that’s why Night of the Living Dead scared the Hell out of me.

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