Presenting Evolution, Part Two
I had intended to get back to the Monty Hall problem today, but then I made the mistake of reading this article from today's New York Times.
The article is about evolutionary biologist Randy Olson, and his recent film Flock of Dodos. The article begins as follows:
If a Harvard-trained evolutionary biologist makes a film about creationism's cousin, intelligent design, and calls it “Flock of Dodos,” you know who he's talking about, right?
The biologist, Randy Olson, accepts that there is no credible scientific challenge to the theory of evolution as an explanation for the diversity and complexity of life on earth. He agrees that intelligent design's embrace of a supernatural “agent” puts it outside the realm of science.
But when he watches the advocates of intelligent design at work, he sees pleasant people who speak plainly, convincingly and with humor. When scientists he knows talk about evolution, they can be dour, pompous and disagreeable, even with one another. His film challenges them to get off their collective high horse and make their case to ordinary people with — if they can muster it — a smile.
Otherwise, he suggests, they will end up in the collective cultural backwash just like the dodo.
Later we have this:
“Flock of Dodos” does not attack intelligent design. Dr. Olson just lets its adherents talk. His view, expressed as a Latin motto at the start of the film, is “res ipsa loquitur” — the thing speaks for itself.
But he also lets the scientists talk. Asked to come up with a slogan to match intelligent design's “teach the controversy,” they fumble. Asked to make the case for evolution, they get into arguments or discuss it in terms so fancy they require on-screen definitions. (“I did not realize 'mendacity' was a 50-cent word,” Dr. Olson said. “That's what academic life has done to me.”)
Where to begin? The case for evolution has been laid out in countless books and at countless websites. It is a long and detailed case, and requires a certain amount of effort to fully assimilate. But the facts are readily available to anyone who wants to take the time to learn them.
So the issue is not that scientists need to get off their high horses and present evolution to the public. What Olson is really saying is that scientists need to dumb down their message so it can compete with pre-digested ID pabulum. Of course scientists fumbled when asked to come up with a slogan to rival “Teach the Controversy!” After all, that slogan is a fraud designed both to conceal the religious motivations of those who promote it, and to obscure simple scientific facts. Even the best slogans exist to reduce complex issues to simplistic and memorable catchphrases. Scientists, who tend to see subtlety in everything, are especially ill-suited to that activity.
If Olson is simply making a crass political point, then I might be willing to go along with him. If he is saying that it is frustrating that things have to be dumbed down so much when presented to the public, but that is simply what must be done to promote evolution effectively, then he might have a point. But I get the impression that he sees himself as being on the side of the angels against the arrogant, pretentious scientists.
For example, take his casual remark about the word “mendacity.” He didn't know it was a fifty cent word! That's what academia had done to him! But of course, it's not a fifty cent word. It's a perfectly good word that everyone should know how to use in a sentence. Dictionaries are readily available for those who do not know the word but are willing to invest thirty seconds in educating themselves.
Obviously, there's no shame in not knowing a particular word. The shame comes in pretending that it is the person who used the word who did something wrong. Olson's casual remark about what academic life had done to him is standard anti-intellectualism. It is very disappointing that a scientist would say such a thing.
Scientists, you see, tend to have large vocabularies. They use this vocabulary to express theselves with a level of precision that is foreign to everyday life but essential if one is to think clearly about complex issues. That so many lay people prefer cheap sloganeering to careful thought is a maddening fact of life, not something to sympathize with.
And what about that part about ID advocates being charming, pleasant people? Well, again, if Olson is saying simply that ID folks are good at PR then we have no quarrel. If he's saying that ID folks have to be good at PR because of the emptiness of their arguments, then I agree completely. But it sounds to me like he's saying that the charm offensive ID advocates put on in public is not a facade, but rather a genuine reflection of who they actually are. If my interpretation is correct, then I can only shake my head sadly at his naivete.
ID advocates are perfectly happy to level outrageous charges of fraud and deceit towards scientists. When someone like Jonathan Wells writes a book called Icons of Evolution, in which evolutionary biologists are likened to mafia kingpins and whose every major assertion is demonstrably false, he becomes a hero of the movement. ID advocates present laughable caricatures of scientific work, routinely quote scientists out of context, are perfectly happy to lay Nazism and other horrors at evolution's doorstep, and defend their position with arguments that are flatly wrong.
Apparently none of that matters to Olson. In public, ID advocates smile a lot and tell a lot of jokes. What pleasant fellows they are! If only scientists could be more like that!!
Of course scientists should be more skillful in presenting their arguments to the public. I said as much myself in Monday's post. But the solution isn't dumbing down the subject to appeal to the lowest common denominator. It likewise isn't pretending that ID advocates are charming folks who just want to have an engaging discussion about science, while ignoring their breathtaking sleaziness as soon as they get away from the camera.
If Olson really believes that ID speaks for itself, then why all his emphasis on scientists presenting themselves more effectively? It's precisely because ID does not speak for itself that we have the problems we do. ID presents itself as one thing but is really something else entirely. Its advocates are sufficiently skillful at this that many lay people, already sympathetic to the basic message of ID (that God exists), find it difficult to pierce the fog.
Instead of making a commercial film chiding scientists for sometimes seeming like fuddy-duddies and criticizing them for not dumbing down their message sufficiently to appeal to people who refuse to educate themselves, why not make a slick, mass-market film pointing out the flaws in ID?
Actually, I think I know the answer to that one. A film pointing out the flaws in ID would be difficult to market. Promoting crass stereotypes of scientists by making them look clueless and aloof on the other hand...