Randy Olson is a scientist-turned-filmmaker whose first production, A Flock of Dodos, was about the Intelligent Design circus. His second production, Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy, is just being released. Both are fun and informative at the same time. They also address a theme that is worth serious reflection: why is science so hard to communicate to the general public, especially when scientists do the communicating?
Randy discovered this for himself when he interviewed scientists and Intelligent Design proponents for A Flock of Dodos. The ID folks had no arguments or facts but came across as friendly, well-meaning people that you would enjoy spending time with. The evolutionists had all the arguments and facts at their disposal but came across as so arrogant and mean-spirited that you wouldn't want to drink a beer with them. Randy was rooting for the evolutionists, so it's not as if he willfully misrepresented them!
It gets worse. The ID folks are well supported by conservative think tanks such as the Discovery Institute. When Randy tried to get financial backing for A Flock of Dodos, the organizations dedicated to teaching evolution and the advancement of science acted as if he was from outer space. They simply didn't fund that sort of thing, even if they had the spare change to do so.
Randy is a patient and good-natured man, but his e-mails began to acquire an edge when Ben Stein's movie Expelled was released. It was just as Randy had prophesied--a full-length movie, widely distributed in theaters, that used all the tricks of the entertainment industry to promote Intelligent Design and sow doubt about evolution. Was the truth going to matter when Stein appeared on the Larry King show, exposing millions and millions of people to slickly packaged falsehoods? When were the evolutionists going to awake from their slumber and realize that they needed to use the same communication tools as their adversaries?
I'm fascinated by the disconnect between the facts that matter and how they are communicated. I think they are like our eating habits. You have probably heard the observation that our eating habits made great sense in the Stone Age even though they are killing us today. How about our communication habits? Stone Age groups were small. Everyone knew each other and could hold each other accountable for their deeds and misdeeds. People weren't allowed to become leaders unless they had earned everyone's respect. Celebrities were really worth emulating. I'll bet that spontaneous communication led to adaptive outcomes much more in our natural social environment than today.
Today, we are suffering from the informational equivalent of grotesque obesity. Like it or not, we must learn to manage our communication in ways that make the best use of our genetically evolved instincts. That includes being vigilant about the misuse of communication. What happens naturally through gossip in small groups somehow needs to be implemented at a larger scale.
These are serious issues, but you can make an entertaining start by settling down with your bucket of popcorn and watching Sizzle, the tale of a scientist who wants to produce a documentary about global warming, but who's too uptight even for his own mother. Will he succeed with the help of his gay financial backers, his streetwise black camera crew, and without the help of Tom Cruise?
Follow David Sloan Wilson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/David_S_Wilson