Skepticality, cont.

So I’m continuing to work my way backwards through the Skepticality podcasts, and they are really, really interesting. Every episode features some member of the skeptics community, or some professional in a field that is (was that week) a hot button news issue. Since none of us can be an expert on everything, it’s a great pleasure to hear about the expert work being done in fields, often scientific, and know that the person interviewed holds themselves to the same level of skeptical rigor and scientific method that I expect before I believe someone.

I jotted some notes down while listening to a particularly interesting recent episode last week with Dr. Randy Olson on 5/13, around the time of the “Expelled” hoop-lah. I’m going to try and recreate a coherent post out of my notes here. I’ll also warn that I was probably working while listening, so I may have missed some bits as I tuned out to focus on something interesting on my screen. :-)

Dr. Olson talks about the danger that “Expelled” poses (posed) to the evolutionary biology community and brings up his own documentary, “Flock of Dodos”, and lectures “Don’t Be Such a Scientist!” Now, I was a little put off by that latter title and was irrationally critical before listening. Trying to stay neutral, I did begin to enjoy Dr. Olson, and do agree with some of his points. He is a biologist-turned-filmmaker, so keep that in mind. I have been saying for quite some time that scientists are responsible for educating the public about proper science, and aren’t always good at it. However, in astronomy, as I look around in Charlottesville and on the web, I see a great push to educate the public. However, Dr. Olson still criticizes the scientific community, encouraging them to be more like the ID people in their public relations. But do we want all that flash? Do we want to pan completely to the distracted public, and woo them away with a flashy show? It’s philosophically disturbing, but the reality of teaching science is frustrating. Maybe there is something to be learned here. Elitism is a good thing in one sense, but we do need to educate and communicate.

With regard to “Expelled,” Dr. Olson lists 6 ways in which the scientific crowd helped the movie:

1: Allowing unknowing interviews. Okay, so science folks tend to believe the best in people, aren’t suspicious, and try to educate. This is what we are supposed to do, educate. It’s sad to find out that this cannot happen anymore. Dawkins talks very eloquently about how his patient explanations were abused on his own blog. Luckily, he says, there were no rant-fests. But the worst rants in my experiences come from non-scientists who support science. Is the anger and fierceness to cover up how they may feel left out of the actual science? The anger from all of us is directed at those who willfully manipulate others, not those that make their decisions based on insufficient evidence, or who are manipulated.

2: Denying professionalism of trailer. Fine, but experience to date has shown that the film was only successful with the already-converted-to-ID-crowd. Nothing of substance came out of it; it only served to galvanize the IDists. I doubt that it converted any, although the younger crowd watching the commercials on Comedy Central may be at risk.

3: Playing into PR-machine at Minneapolis screening. I think PZ brings up a good response in his blog, that they are selling themselves. They don’t need to have a movie themselves. I disagree that you need to fight one movie with an equal movie. See #2 for why… different crowds.

4: Predicting box office failure. But again, see #2 on who the movie probably reached!

5 and 6: Wikipedia will probably keep better track of the lawsuits by an animation company and Yoko Ono better than I can. It stopped the showings and may block the DVD release, but Dr. Olson says we can’t count on that. As of June 2nd, Ono’s injunction was ruled down.

So at the end of the day, do we fight this war on their terms or ours? Has Dr. Olson lost touch with scientists in his quest to reach out to the public? Sure, there are lots more we can do to be entertaining and stay positive, but there’s only so far that we “dodos” can go without leaving behind our integrity. Still, I think his book will be an interesting read and is worth our intention, lest we learn something good.

P.S. I hate the term “evolutionists.” It makes evolutionary biology seem like an opinion or philosophy. Yuck.

P.P.S. Shermer reviews the movie very well at SciAm.

1 comment for “Skepticality, cont.

  1. Jon Voisey
    June 13, 2008 at 14:19

    I agree with a lot of what you’re saying in this post on whether or not scientists need to play on their terms, or if we should stoop to playing the PR game. I’ve written up my thoughts here.

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