Friday, February 24, 2006


The Ten Commandments (For Evolutionists)

Evolutionary biologist and filmmaker Randy Olson managed to spark a controversy recently that reveals some of the anxieties among those of us who are fighting to defend evolution from its creationist and ID detractors.

Olson's film, "Flock of Dodos: The Evolution – Intelligent Design Circus" has been playing to packed houses on college campus such as Harvard, Stonybrook, and Yale since its wildly successful premiere earlier this month in Kansas.

In March, the film will be screened at Rice University, Florida State University, and Kansas State University. For the full list of upcoming screenings, readers should check the Flock of Dodos website.

Olson's film makes a persuasive case that scientists have been less than effective at communicating science in general and evolution in particular to the public.

And now, Olson has followed up the film with a post, on Carl Zimmer's The Loom, titled "Ten Things Evolutionists Can Do to Improve Communication."

One of Olson's Ten Commandments for Evolutionists is never to "rise above" or condescend. Whenever you do, writes Olson, you lose the sympathy of your audience. "When evolutionists call intelligent designers idiots… it just makes everyone side with the people being condescended towards."

We won't try to capture all of Olson's Ten Commandments here, but we urge readers to follow the link (above) and read it for themselves.

There have been two distinct reactions among evolutionists to the film and Olson's subsequent remarks:

Chris Mooney, who is representative of one reaction to this discussion, writes on The Intersection blog that the film and Olson's comments should "serve as a wake-up call to scientists, alerting them to the fact that they are losing touch with the American public."

PZ Myers, who publishes Pharyngula, is representative of a rather different reaction: "Maybe it's my own high dork factor talking," he writes, "but I'm not too receptive to people telling me I need movie star qualities to be able to support science, or that we have to pander to superficial sensibilities to communicate a message."

RSR reads Dr. Myers every day, and we're not anxious to see him take a leave from writing Pharyngula or teaching classes up in the frozen North to develop abs like Brad Pitt or high cheekbones like Angelina Jolie. In our opinion, Dr. Myers is an extremely effective and tireless communicator.

That being said, Red State Rabble remains convinced that many scientists, educators, and defenders of civil liberties have abstained from this battle for far too long.

Most of us have other important work – not to mention family, community, and social obligations – to attend to.

Some have argued the sudden entry of religion into the political life of the nation is just a passing fad. If we simply wait it out, it will go the way of Hula Hoops, tie died shirts, and streaking.

Until recently, many of us were understandably uncomfortable taking on other people's religious beliefs. Perhaps, some of us still are. Most of us don't think of ourselves as political activists. We may even share a certain distaste for the tawdry spectacle into which American politic life has devolved.

Often, as “Flock of Dodos” vividly illustrates, when we have responded to attacks from the religious right on the separation of church and state and the teaching of evolution in public schools we have been less than effective.

Olson's film, made as a self-conscious exercise in effective communication, touches the viewer on an emotional level that debates and lectures seldom do.

The film – as we writers are fond of saying shows (it does not tell) – that the debate is not, in the end, about science. It's a battle, one of many, in a broader culture war. It will not be won or lost on facts alone.

Science, Olson argues, must adapt to this new reality, or die.

While we think our message must be conveyed to the public more effectively, Red State Rabble does not subscribe to an alarmist view of our current situation.

The recent AAAS Conference in St. Louis demonstrates clearly that our side, at long last, is beginning to mobilize its big institutions to do battle.

Recent statements by a number of university presidents indicate that the deadly seriousness of this battle has become apparent even to those who face certain institutional pressures, such as raising funds from corporations or conservative alumni, for staying on the sidelines.

We have won big victories in Dover and Ohio. And these aren't just legal victories, either. In Dover, we won in the voting booth as well as in the courtroom.

Judge John Jones' clearly written and unequivocal ruling has prompted journalists to penetrate the smokescreen of ID rhetoric and to report more critically on their claims.

The reversal in Ohio reflects, at least in part, the dawning recognition on the part of Gov. Taft that ID was hurting his chances, slim though they may be, for re-election. Rick Santorum, it would appear, has experienced a similar epiphany.

Interestingly, Martha Wise, the woman who led the Ohio board to reject ID-inspired "critical analysis" language in the standards there plans to run for state senate. She describes herself as a creationist.

The success of the Clergy Letter Project and Evolution Sunday reflect a growing concern among mainstream denominations that attacks on evolution are, at the end of the day, attacks on their religious freedom, too. Initial hopes, on the part of those in the intelligent design movement, that a new Pope might move quickly to distance the church from science, have not materialized.

A big election battle between right-wing radicals on the Kansas School Board and moderate Republicans and Democrats who want to take the state back into twenty-first century is shaping up here.

Yesterday, a new candidate stepped forward to challenge rightist Ken Willard. Now each of the theocrats on the Kansas State Board of Education has at least one opponent in the upcoming election.

It's too early to tell how it will all turn out, but the early signs are promising. Many, we think, are beginning to sense, just as we did in 1999, a groundswell of opposition to the ludicrous policy decisions made by the current ultra-conservative board majority.

We can't win every battle, but there is every reason to believe that if we mobilize to defend science education and the constitutional guarantee of church and state separation from attacks by the religious right, and we learn, as we will, how to do it effectively, we will, in the end, win this battle.

RSR would like to ask readers to comment with their ideas for improving communications with the public. We'd like to hear what we're doing right, and what we're doing wrong. This is a healthy discussion. One that, in the end, will help strengthen the movement to defend science and the constitution.

Tomorrow, RSR will take a look at the Michael Ruse, Daniel Dennett exchange.


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