Friday, March 17, 2006


Dodos at K-State

Randy Olson’s “Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus” was screened at Kansas State University last yesterday. Red State Rabble was not able to attend, but we’ve received a report on the film showing and subsequent panel discussion from reader DR.

Olson’s film is designed to provoke discussion, and from DR’s report, it succeeded admirably. We’re passing along DR’s report on the meeting in the hope that it will provoke even more discussion among defenders of science education. In the end, that will help scientists, educators, and laypeople to fight this battle more effectively.

Here’s DR’s report, lightly edited by RSR:

The panel discussion afterward was quite revealing, in many ways. The participants were John Staver, a KSU education professor who was co-chair of the 1999 science standards writing committee, Srini Khambhampati, a KSU entomology professor who also teaches in our new non-science majors “origins” course, filmmaker Randy Olson, and Jack Cashill, who appears in the film and is billed as a “conservative author”.

Also in the audience were Steve Case, chair of the current science standards writing committee, and Sue Gamble, a Kansas board of education member. More about her later.

The premises of the discussion were established by moderator Bruce Glymour, a member of the KSU Philosophy Department, who wanted to restrict the discussion to “how science and scientists can communicate better”.

This is definitely Olson’s major premise, that science is not currently communicated to the public at all well, that scientists have not adapted to the realities of modern communication and the sound-bite culture, and that we are losing the battle with the ID/Creationist folks precisely because of those problems.

These restrictions on the questions caused immediate problems for the first questioner, who wanted to know who started the big bang, and how it all began, etc.

When Bruce told him that was not what we were here to discuss, he left the room, along with about 20-25 high school students who were apparently under his control. He did reappear later; the students did not.

The next few questions revolved around exactly why scientists are perceived to be so bad at communicating science, and included the usual suspects: lack of conciseness, lack of training in sound-bite theory, or film-making, and the inability to understand the level of understanding of their audience.

I then asked what I thought was a simple question, “How are scientists, who are by necessity constrained to stick to the truth, supposed to compete effectively against folks who consistently lie?”

I mentioned two of the lies that were repeated in the movie, one old chestnut by Connie Martin (“there are no transitional fossils”) and a real whopper which I hadn’t heard before, by Cashill: “the discovery of DNA really threw a monkey wrench into the study of evolution.”

It appeared that the panel didn’t understand the question. After a few ineffectual pronouncements, I bluntly/rudely repeated my assertion that it is difficult if not impossible to compete against well-funded liars.

Bruce rephrased that and asked this question of the panelists: “Is it OK to lie to make your point?” Both of the KSU academics answered that it is not OK to lie; the two more media-savvy panelists (Cashill and Olson) never answered that question outright.

Make whatever you want to from that observation... Additional questions danced around the edges of what scientists and other academics are doing wrong, and Olson’s constant refrain was that it is a new communication age, things are moving very fast, and the old ways of doing things just aren’t working for science and academics in general.

Both he and Cashill opined that scientists seemed angry and defensive, and that such perceptions hurt their case with the public, especially compared to congenial folks like Connie Martin and John Calvert.

Then Cashill said something in passing about the campaign that led up to Sue Gamble’s election to the KSBOE in 1998. Ms. Gamble marched up to the front of the room and waited patiently for the microphone.

When she got it, she reamed Cashill out and told him that he was lying about the history, and proceeded to set the record straight about how she was not supported by the Republican party hierarchy in the primary, not supported by any political powers, but merely elected by voters who ignored the party oligarchy, and who thought as she did.

Cashill turned on the charm and said something like “Here’s a media tip for you, Sue. Don’t call your opponent a liar.” My immediate blurted response was “Then just quit lying”, and Ms. Gamble gave that remark a thumbs-up as she went back up the aisle to take her seat.

Which brings me to my major problem with this movie, and the approach of Mr. Olson, sincere though it may be.

He seems to have bought into one of the major snow jobs of the ID folks, that this is somehow a choice between two equal perspectives (products). In order to do that, the DI sells ID like a product, and we are all acting like consumers. Some of Olson’s statements: “my heart is still with the evolutionist side,” as well as some of the audience comments: “I am a consumer and you need to convince me” would indicate that the tactic has worked.

But ID, as a product, is anti-intellectualism. Those selling the product are well funded, and the ad campaign is fueled by lies. The Discovery Institute hired the same ad agency that produced the “Swift Boat Veterans For Truth”. A very well-funded, full-time PR machine, the Democratic Party, lost that fight.

And science will lose it too, if we allow them to define the turf and make us play by the rules of Madison Avenue or Hollywood.

So we need to be very clear that this is not a consumer product battle. It is a choice between truth and fiction. That may be a consumer choice when buying a book to read on the airplane, but it is not a choice in science.

This also helps explain the perception that scientists, including the ones in the movie as well as this one, seem angry and defensive. ID is anti-intellectualism, it is well funded, and it is fueled by lies. Scientists are intellectuals by nature, always scrambling for funding, and are constantly winnowing through lots of information in search of factual truth.

In this state, where the legislature is planning to ignore a Supreme Court decision telling them to just do their job and fund K-12 education adequately, anti-intellectualism seems to be the current and future reality. Lies have always been a part of the political system, alas.

So perhaps scientists do need to be more media-savvy in an environment where politics and consumerism rule. But truth and fiction are not equal products in science, and they should not be viewed as equal contenders in science education.


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