Wednesday, April 12, 2006

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?

Maybe not.

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...


At 12:17 PM, Blogger Mark said...

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.
Government reviewers have criticized some of my writing for insufficient dumb-down, but I have to agree with Mencken when his publisher wanted him to replace "Chrestomathy" in a title--he relied to the effect that his readers had all been to school, everyone else can stick to their dime novels. It's one thing to avoid jargon, quite another to avoid good, wholesome English words just because they're more than 1 syllable.

At 1:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry, but I totally disagree with this position. You start from the wrong premise; it isn't "dumbing down" the science--it's presenting it effectively. Folks on the evolution side tend to forget the basic situation of today's information rich society--there are so many things that CAN be attended to that they seek markers and rules to cut through the clutter; the ID/creationist side know that and give them rules to cut through the discontinuity. And people are forgetting is that effective presentation derives from empirical methods (some of which has been explored more rigorously in the scientific literature, some of which has been used as rules in marketing work).

This is a behavioral science problem; folks need to approach it from that way and need to understand that the ID/creation side is essentially doing that.

At 1:35 PM, Blogger Jason said...


Markers and rules to cut through the clutter sound like dumbing things down to me.

I'm all in favor of scientists presenting themselves more effectively. But Olson isn't helping in that effort. If his film is described accurately in the article, it sound like he is just reinforcing steroetypes.

At 4:07 PM, Anonymous snaxalotl said...

it sounds like your position is "we don't really need to win the cultural war, because we won as a matter of science and that's going to trump any other system of enquiry". Well, it SHOULD trump any other system, but the whole creationist point is to move to a system where truth ISN'T decided by scientific victory. the scientific system can be relegated. c.f. dark ages, modern theocracy...

At 4:38 PM, Blogger CJR said...

Isn't there a hint of a false dichotomoy here? I certainly wouldn't advocate throwing out rigourous and detailed expositions of evolutionary (or any other) science and replacing them exclusively with catchy slogans, but that doesn't mean there isn't a role for the 'dumbed-down version'- if you want to call it that - as well. It's a simple fact that most people hear about science on TV or in newspapers; we might balk at the simplifications and loss of nuance neccessary to communicate effectively in these media, but that makes it even more important not to leave them entirely to people who either have little knowledge of science, or are actively against it.

As scientists we rightly criticise ID for having nothing of substance beyond a slick PR campaign, but this doesn't mean we can't learn something from the fact that despite this, their ideas have had some penetration.

At 5:14 PM, Blogger DMcKeon said...

I happen to agree with Dr. O in terms of the need to explain evolution patiently and in a winsome way. I've been doing that in my Sunday school classes for awhile now.

As a Christian, I see no reason to support ID as all it really does is try to introduce a scientific "proof" for the existence of God. The core goal of ID is to make a case that a complex organism can only be explained by "God did it." Unfortunately, a lot of Christians have a very shoddy theological understanding as well. The recent discoveries have given me ample opportunity to inform people of how to interpret Genesis and how we should read the diverse books of the Bible.

So, if it helps, I'm making the case. Many fundamentalists don't respect scientists because some, such as many of the readers of this blog, tend to go to the opposite extreme of arguing that it "proves" the non-existence of God. Neither proof is very persuasive though.


At 5:57 PM, Anonymous Julia said...

Dennis, as a fellow Christian, I agree with you completely and congratulate you on your attempts to inform your Sunday School class.

As a person who has devoted many years to teaching skills to disadvantaged people, I find it painful to hear people speak of bringing information to the truly uneducated as "dumbing down" the information.

One small example: When my now thirty-five-year-old son was two, he stood up in a chair, and it turned over. I put him back in the chair and told him that he should keep his weight over the chair's center of gravity, showing him that if he shifted his weight forward the chair would turn over frontwards and if he shifted his weight to the back the chair would turn over backwards. He frequently stood in chairs after that, but never turned one over again. A few months later when he began to talk in full sentences, I found he could use the term "center of gravity" in some reasonably useful fashion, and of course his childhood understanding improved as he grew.

People need to be spoken to at the level where they are. Yes, it is possible to begin explaining evolution even to a three year old; and if scientists value their funding sources, they need to do a far better job than they are doing of explaining their work to voters with much less education/knowledge than themselves.

At 8:24 PM, Blogger Alan Kellogg said...

In my experience more scientists need to learn how to talk to people instead of at them.

At 9:19 PM, Anonymous Chris Adams said...

I saw Flock of Dodos and heard a panel discussion with Dr. Olsen last week. I think your response is seriously unfounded - I'm not completely happy with the movie but the general impression in no way legitimized ID. The ID proponents come off as well-funded con-men with slick PR firms and an anti-science agenda; the pro-science side needs to treat this seriously before they too are "Swift-Boated". Scientists need to start attending debates and refuting many claims which are under-challenged (e.g. that humans have never observed evolution) and reminding people of the outright mendacity practiced by most ID supporters.

My main gripe with the movie is that it didn't really explain why ID is not science or cover the way ID proponents have been caught lying or seriously changing their claims after things have been debunked. I'd really, really like it if the ID proponents had more pressure to produce an actual theory of ID and things like Behe's Dover admission that astrology would have equal status under his criteria need a lot more publicity - they're a great example to give when explaining why ID doesn't belong in a science class.

At 12:25 AM, Blogger Merle said...

"Teach the controversy" needs something to match it?

How about "Teach the truth"?

At 3:08 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What about "Teach the science"?

At 4:02 AM, Blogger Turnip said...

Evolution: You're not in Kansas anymore.

At 4:09 AM, Blogger Turnip said...

Or, indeed, Teach Evolution: It's only Natural.

At 5:28 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I must strongly disagree with your position as well. As someone with training in molecular evolution, I am repeatedly dismayed at the frequency with which public proponents of evolution espouse poorly thought out arguments, childish antics, and reliance on "the scientific establishment" to support their positions. We really need to work on a PR campaign that is both scientifically accurate but *also* digestible for the public. (Yes, there are some good sites/books/etc out there, but there's just as much or more mean-spirited vitriolic crap) This campaign need not be "dumbed down." As someone else has pointed out, we can have all the best data/evidence/logic, but if the ID/YEC types move outside the scientific battleground into the political arena, and we can't be persuasive enough with the general public, we will loose significant ground.

At 11:38 AM, Blogger Lord Runolfr said...

"Teach Reality"

At 11:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Life is too complex to have been designed.

Dave S.

At 3:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The slogan "Teach the truth" is questionable in a scientific, philosophical and religious basis. It implies an absolute knowledge which I believe science does not claim. "Teach science" is much better. The only conflict I see between religion and science is when religion claims the absolute authority of old written documents.
On the matter of the image science as given by some spokespeople it does sometimes seem austere and humorless. I remember as a teen in the 50's in the UK watching the BBC program "Brains Trust" when the panel of distinguished thinkers (both secular and religious) were asked about test-tube babies, Jacob Brunowski replied "I know a much better way"
Science spokespeople need not be pedantic, but should present with honesty,humanity,humor and humility.
Names that come to mind are Sagan, Einstein, Brunowski, Feynman and from another age T H Huxley. If you doubt this last choice just read some of his letters to Charles Kingsley.
David, Palo Alto CA

At 4:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How about" Teach the facts"?

At 12:17 PM, Anonymous skribb said...

How about:

Teach, don't preach.

At 9:09 PM, Anonymous Amos said...

How about:

Teach honestly.

At 12:42 AM, Blogger golombek said...

I suspect there is some selection bias happening if "When scientists he knows talk about evolution, they can be dour, pompous and disagreeable . . . " I work with scientists, and I am studying biology. Most of the scientists I know are warm, witty, thoughtful human beings. If I were making a film about science, I would feature them rather than the minority who are DPD.

At 1:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

OK, here is the useful part of controversy. What sort of a designer - - embodied, or disembodied - - does "Intelligent Desigh" presume?

If so, it is physically possible but utterly absurd. OR does it presume
If so, it is a religious doctrine — lacking an ethical foundation.

That IS the controversy. None of the biological arguments matter!

I have just started a blog on this:

As yet I have posted only the abstract of a whole article on this. The rest will follow soon.

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At 7:20 AM, Blogger charlie said...

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