Monday, December 3, 2007

Flock of Dodos

I saw Flock of Dodos last night and it brought up a lot of interesting points and prompted some interesting discussion between me and J. I believe this stuff is best dealt with in bullet form:
  • Communication: Randy Olson brought up the point that scientists/academics do not communicate well to the public. The poker game in his documentary backed up his idea; though, as a nerd, I secretly wished I could be part of that game Unfortunately, I don't think that this issue is really as simple as it was presented to be. The question is, how much responsibility does the scientific community have in ensuring public understanding of evolution? We could argue that the responsibility lies solely within the scientific community. Or, we could argue that the public should take a more active role in understanding. Of course, depending on the public to do so would be dangerous; we live in a fairly lazy society that likes easy answers. It takes work to understand evolution and most people just aren't up to the task. Part of the problem is that evolution has remained largely marginalized in textbooks and classrooms. I cannot remember studying evolution in any detail in high school or middle school. Even my biology course for my bachelor's degree didn't include anything. Can we expect the public to know anything in light of the absence of evolution from education? Unfortunately, no. Should scientists then pick up the slack and work extra hard to promote understanding? We need better education when it comes to evolution and science...and unfortunately, that's the debated issue.

  • Anger: There's a lot of anger on the evolution side of the debate. Is this anger detracting from the argument? I've been wondering how this anger comes across to someone neutral on the debate. Is it seen as condescending? Is it justifiable? There's a great post on it at Greta Christina's blog. She gives a ton of reasons to be angry and explains why the anger is not a negative thing and I agree with her that anger is often the single instigator of action and that it is necessary and not unhealthy. I also believe that it can be misdirected, especially when using it to argue a point in a debate. It seems that the anger evident in the Creationism/ID/Evolution debate is also the reason that the argument goes from one of "this doesn't belong in science education" to "you're wrong, I'm right." What we're debating is the teaching of it in public schools, in science classrooms. Our emotions, namely our anger, lead us to engage in debate that borders on the real issue and therefore weakens our argument.
  • Philosophy: J brought up an interesting question about philosophy. His question was, "why do we place more value on science than on philosophy?" I'm not entirely sure what he meant by this, but I think it's something like, "why do we think evolution is correct because it's science and think ID is wrong because it's based in philosophy?" Or, furthermore, "don't humans assign value to science and philosophy?...and if so, how can we say one is more valuable than another?" Perhaps we do value science more (though evidence in this country shows that science isn't necessarily valued by most). If so, I'm inclined to say it's because of the tangible evidence. Where philosophy is pure thought, science is based on the natural world. Regardless, I think his point was that the value we assign is based entirely on our beliefs. This is a slippery-slope. If we can't support one over the other because we can't trust our value-assignments, then what else can we marginalize? In the context of philosophy, we can completely deny our own existence. So what, then, does anything matter? J did bring up the point that philosophy and science are partners more than separate entities, that is has been the precursor for many scientific ideas. So, I do not mean to discount the importance of philosophy.

In all, I thought the movie was pretty fair. It gave a lot of camera time to both sides. It was definitely skewed toward the evolution side, but hell, that's the side that's right. If anything, it made me feel responsibility for eradicating the immense amount of ignorance surrounding the debate. Unfortunately, I've just recently learned enough myself, and I don't feel qualified quite yet to do so.


Brian said...

Flock of Dodos was pretty good, but I think it was a bit of a set-up against scientists a bit. We're allowed in to the "secret" scientist meeting where they can be a little arrogant, but I don't doubt that some creationist gatherings go to same way (but we don't get to see that). Science communication is important but I think the issues go beyond "Scientists are mean, creationists are nice" and I think Olson somewhat fell into the hackneyed notion that scientists are generally bad communicators. It wasn't a bad film, but I'm less enthusiastic about it now than I was when I first saw it.

Amanda said...

I wonder what the motivation was behind including that poker game? I mean, it certainly wasn't an attractive glimpse into the world of science. Perhaps Randy Olson thought that it would level out the playing field, since the movie was obviously pro-evolution.

I agree with you, anyway, that it was "a bit of a set-up." Not that he tricked the scientists into looking that way, but that he included that and almost exclusively that. Though he did have some great clips with David Bottjer. I think Bottjer was very polite and very to-the-point.

In the end, "but you're mean" isn't an argument, but the actual argument doesn't really seem to matter to the public. People are more swayed by the politics. I think that the DI's noise over the Gonzalez tenure decision is an attempt to lure in the public with politics in hopes that they won't see the obvious holes in the logic. Pharyngula has a great post on it...and the comments are great. I'm sure you've read it already....

Zach Miller said...

I'll have to see this movie. I think communication with the general public is incredibly important. Darwin knew how to do it--my wife showed in her grad thesis that he effectively communicated to both his fellow scientists and to the common man. That is an incredibly important art that is lost on modern scientists. Read any older science book or paper, and compare it to a modern example. Modern papers are so specialized, they don't even make an effort to be readable to people outside the field.

At the same time, I blame the Associated Press for skewing science in the media. I don't disagree that many scientists need to learn to speak to the public a little better (learn to use appropriate comparisons, folks!), but the Associated Press will ALWAYS go for the keywords. A lot of information is lost when you go through the media. Remember that whole H. habilus in H. erectus' territory fiasco a few months ago?

I'm brainstorming a philosophical post right now, generally about "why does God have to be involved in everything?" Why is God so important? Why do people need God? Why are people willing to live and die for something they can't see or understand? Personally, I think it's because when you believe in a vague, mystical diety, you can sculpt that diety around your own personal beliefs and experiences. Your "God" merely justifies and strengthens your own beliefs.

But science is harder. Science makes you take responsibility, and makes the world a big, scary, random place. Bah--I'm still brainstorming the post, but I've definately got a lot of opinions about this.