Flock of Dodos continues

| 27 Comments

On the Loom, Carl Zimmer provides us with an interview with Randy Olson. As you may remember, Randy is the director of the movie “Flock of Dodos”.

Randy’s comments and suggestions have generated quite some disagreement from PZ Myers on Pharyngula and John Lynch on Stranger Fruit.

Let’s first look at Randy’s suggstions as to how to improve communication, then some of the disagreements and finally I will give my $0.02 on the matter. I also hope that the readers of PandasThumb will contribute to explore these issues as they go to the heart of how the issue how to best teach and educate the layperson about evolutionary theory.

Randy gives some very useful pointers as how to best reach one’s audience. The ten steps include: Quality control, attitude, concision, modernization, prioritization, understanding, risk taking/innovation, humor, Unscripted Media and the Mass Audience and finally sincerity.

John Lynch responded as follows

Randy Olson, following an MFA in filmmaking from USC, has decided that the way to improve evolution education is basically to engage in sort of dumbed-down glossiness that anti-evolutionists specialize in; all surface flash with little real depth. Olson seems to have forgotten that communicating science is difficult and it’s complexity doesn’t yield to simple Hollywoodization. Taking a bunch of acting classes - which he seems to suggest is necessary - wont solve that problem.

My reading of Randy’s suggestions leads me to just the opposite. Randy suggests that while maintaining accuracy and precision are important, it is also important to be concise. The attention span of today’s audiences is quite limited and if the goal is to communicate scientific concepts then one has to take into consideration the audience involved.And what is wrong with adding ‘glossiness’ to one’s presentation?

An excellent example of Randy’s suggestions is found in the video series which can be ordered for free from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Without avoiding complex issues, the various people present compelling and interesting lectures on a variety of topics. And their audience is a demanding one consisting of high school and college students. The presentation is slick, compelling and interesting without sounding condescending and without avoiding going into details.

Communicating an idea or concept involves not only understanding the material you want to discuss, but also understand how to communicate with the audience.

PZ Myers states

PZ Myers Wrote:

Maybe it’s my own high dork factor talking, 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. Our strengths are depth, intelligence, evidence, history, the whole damn natural world, and just plain having the best and most powerful explanation for its existence. Don’t tell us to dumb it down and glitz it up. I think people should be smart enough to understand it, and there’s grandeur enough in it that dressing it up in rhinestones is just silly. We need to know how to communicate real science, not Hollywood

Again the author totally misses the point. Being right is not sufficient, having the most powerful explanation can be totally lost on an audience bored to death. Rather than being superficial, it is essential to understand the sensibilities of one’s audience IF one is interested in effectively communicating a particular message. What a loss if a message which attempts to communicate the most powerful explanation, is fully lost because of flawed delivery and rather than holding your audience responsible for being ‘smart enough’ to understand it, it should be the presenter’s responsibility to appropriately present the materials.

Yes, this means hard work and perhaps the involvement of people who have expertise in presenting data in a manner which effectively communicates the message. It should come as no surprise that in the commercial world, billions of dollars are spent to convey the message. Not just in advertising but also in presentation of new concepts, products or ideas within the company.

As the presenter you are not just responsible for getting the facts straight, that’s the easy part. One is also responsible for organizing the facts in a meaningful sequence and, if needed, provide for additional materials, however ‘shallow’ they may appear, to effectively communicate the concept.

Until people realize that communication involves not just the message and the sender but also the receiver and that for a large variety of reasons a good message can become totally lost to the recipient, scientists in general and evolutionists in particular will have a hard time being heard no matter how loud their voices may be.

Randy Olson’s suggestions, which are excellent in many ways, should not be seen as an indictment of those who are teaching and presenting these materials but as tools to help reach one’s audience more effectively and efficiently. In the older days, the orator was highly skilled in using his knowledge of the facts as well as of his audience to effectively communicate his arguments. In present days, much of the skills of oration have been lost.

CanuckRob on Stranger Fruit captures much of my arguments

eaching certainly is a species of communication but the “public” are a different species of audience. different. Lay persons (not the IDers) that are not your students, that may not have much in the way of science education and who are busy in their own lives (but that do elect people)or those that engage in public life are not going to be reached in the same way that you reach students.

In other words science needs to grow and encourage more popularizers that are qualifed in their field have the approprate skills and desire to particpate in the public arena that way. Fund them through whatever professional organizations you belong to ar start a new one. I think that could work.

27 Comments

Good comment over there from Daniel Newby:

http://loom.corante.com/archives/20[…]ks.php#64228

Sigh.

Sure, there are probably a lot of fun ways to teach the basics of evolutionary biology to people who want to understand it.

But if you shy away from informing people simply that creationists and ID peddlers are disgusting liars whose arguments are debunked crap and rightfully ignored by scientists, you ain’t doing your job.

My sense is that scientists would be better off focusing on getting the latter message out while simply showing folks the interesting creatures that have evolved and which are currently going extinct.

I liked ants and butterflies when I was a kid. And sharks.

Church sucked.

The folks who are stuck on the idea that scientists are deluded atheists who deny intelligent design because of “dogma” likely lack the basic intelligence to grasp the concept of inheritance and natural selection across more than three or four generations.

Daniel points out that there are techniques that can help ‘make the message more interesting’ without necessarily giving up on the details. As a father, I can tell you that getting the message across to a 3 year old indeed requires a different approach and while this may be an extreme example, it may help getting the message across that the audience is a specific ‘target’ or ‘species’ that needs to be informed. Whether or not the message comes across and is retained depends a lot on the message AND how it is delivered

Keep in mind that half the people in the world are dumber than the other half–maybe more. Simply concluding they lack the basic intelligence to grasp evolution concepts and thus don’t deserve our attention is elitist and dangerous. There’s a good reason why so many people don’t “believe” in evolution, and it has more to do with poor education and the failure of science to engage them than religious dogma.

Keep in mind that half the people in the world are dumber than the other half—maybe more.

That is quite an amazing statement , lol.

I will echo the sentiment I voiced at the Loom. There is indeed a need for an adult version of a Bill-Nye-the-Science-Guy approach to the popularization of evolution. However, in no way should this come at the expense of the PBS approach, ie, one that is mostly substance and that doesn’t treat the viewer like an idiot. Unlike Randy, I thought the Evolution series was superb. Hey, science can be hard and at some point we’re just going to lose people who don’t have the intellect or patience to endure a complex exposition. Those are the people who should be targeted with the Bill Nye approach (and that’s not a jab at BN; I loved his show).

PZ, you and RSR need to stop referring to yourselves in the third person. It’s annoying.

I was prepared to be sympathetic to the list, as I’m fairly ignorant about much of science and I’m always appreciative of scientists who can talk/write at (or near) my level (Dawkins, Sagan, Hawking). But actually seeing it — well it goes far beyond what I see as a reasonable level of communication for adults to be engaged in. Sure, for children the standards are different, but flash and conciseness are not what makes a good communicator for me. There’s a level of enthusiasm that’s important. And if a concept is too difficult for a layperson to understand right away, don’t just skip it or says “Trust us”, find a way to explain it in my language. It may take awhile, but I’ll eventually get it.

Which may unfortunately reflect on the problem a lot of Americans have with science - Its not a lack of intelligence, its a lack of patience to actually sit still and learn (Hell, I admit I didn’t have much in High School or college, and now I regret it). We want everything microwaveable.

“PZ Myers wrote:

Maybe it’s my own high dork factor talking, 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. Our strengths are depth, intelligence, evidence, history, the whole damn natural world, and just plain having the best and most powerful explanation for its existence. Don’t tell us to dumb it down and glitz it up. I think people should be smart enough to understand it, and there’s grandeur enough in it that dressing it up in rhinestones is just silly.”

I agree with PvM, PZ is missing the point - badly. Having the most powerful explanation is worthless in a situation like this if you can’t get people to listen to you or understand you. The bit about “half the people” is a line that George Carlin used to use in his routine at colleges: “Think of how stupid the average person is, and realize half of them are stupider than that”.

PZ only teaches about the top 90% (intelectually)(or 80% or 60% - whatever). He is not communicating with most of the populace - who vote, who go to church, who believe that Evolution is Atheism, etc. They are the ones who need to be reached.

That’s the problem with these science blogs. You - all- are preaching to the choir. You keep patting each other on the back. See how smart we are and how ignorant THEY are. Well, we need to reach THEM. And Randy Olson is talking about that.

If presentation didn’t matter, then any warm body could do Hamlet.

However, that’s not the case…and even the best actors have to do their homework and learn how to present the lines.

The same goes for science. Having the goods, having the substance is necessary…but it is not sufficient. Poorly presented science can and will lose out to plausible BS.

PZ, you and RSR need to stop referring to yourselves in the third person. It’s annoying.

Where is PZ refering to himself in third person, and who the hell is RSR? Or did someone forget his smiley face?

RSR is the initials of a fine web log: Red State Rabble http://redstaterabble.blogspot.com/

The irony is, the basic ideas about successful communication that Daniel Newby and Randy Olson provide are themselves the products of science - behavioral science. But in the end, PZ Myers is right, too.

The issue of how to teach or publicly present science will always be a tough one, of course. Science is in some ways like any other creative human activity. Some people are geniuses at doing it. Some of these people are kind, patient, and pleasant, some of these people are jerks (but still enrich humanity by their creative output). Some people are good at explaining it. Some can do it and explain it, some can handle one or the other of these tasks.

There are times when being a good or bad communicator make little or no difference - when you’re dealing with equally informed and interested colleagues or advanced students, for example.

There are times when being a good communicator is extremely helpful, though - dealing with less advanced students, or even more so, presenting ideas to the general public.

However, for the last 200 years, science has survived the onslaught of the likes of Dembski, and it will continue to do so, no matter whether or not scientists are dorky communicators. Intelligent design doesn’t do anything or explain anything. It will always be rejected when it is fully exposed. Virtually all of its “supporters” are driven by transparent ulterior motives.

I agree completely about that. I’ve taught calculus, and I found this to be true:

You fail at presenting if substance is not there, in a scientific or mathematical forum.

However, if you also don’t have style to accompany your substance, it will prevent you from conveying that substance to the listener.

You need both if you are going to do it well. Failing in either one will prevent you from reaching your audience much of the time. I mean, just think back to those long, boring math and science classes in college. Were you bored because they were wrong? Or because they were presented poorly?

Ok, I’ve not seen dodo’s (only read the reports). Here’s what I don’t get. While I agree that scientists are usually not the best communicators with the general populace, why is it that we are supposed to be engaging in a scientific discussion about ID? ID is not a scientific enterprise, it’s about social reform. It’s a political movement that is using science as a front. We should be able to point that out without having to delve into the intricacies of evolutionary biology. What ID has done effectively is convince people that what they are arguing is science. We simply need to point out clearly, concisely and repeatedly that it is not science, it is a political movement aimed at social reform. “It’s the politics, stupid!” (PS that last statement applies to only 50% of the people).

Cheers

Joe Meert

how about the Nova Origins series? is that any good?

Joe Meert Wrote:

While I agree that scientists are usually not the best communicators with the general populace, why is it that we are supposed to be engaging in a scientific discussion about ID? ID is not a scientific enterprise, it’s about social reform.

For the simple reason that ID is about ‘teaching the controversy’ about evolution. Provide the audience with a better understanding with evolutionary theory and much of the dissent may dissolve. Similarly, because ID is a religiously motivated issue, it is also important for Christian scientists to speak out against the idea that science is somehow atheistic or anti-Christian.

Joe Meert Wrote:

It’s a political movement that is using science as a front. We should be able to point that out without having to delve into the intricacies of evolutionary biology. What ID has done effectively is convince people that what they are arguing is science. We simply need to point out clearly, concisely and repeatedly that it is not science, it is a political movement aimed at social reform. “It’s the politics, stupid!” (PS that last statement applies to only 50% of the people).

Point out to them that ID is scientifically vacuous (avoids having to deal with demarcation issues) and that ID’s religious and political motivations are often misguided.

AND educate the people as to how there is really no controversy about evolution in the sense pretended by many ID activists.

I think humor is critical (ie Flying Spaghetti Monster). It’s also critical to question and challenge the IDiots. For example, when Dempski spoke in Kansas, Andrew Stangl, President of SOMA asked Dempski if he could provide any empirical evidence for his claims. This started out the Q and A section.

Randy Olson talks about video. It’s also worth remembering being effective on radio. If you want to purchase advertising, radio in my opinion has more bang for the buck than Television. TV is much more fragmented than radio.

Scientists do tend to be a bit conflict avoidant, but in the political realm, you need to play hardball. So that means calling the ID creationists when they lie about stuff (they do that all the time), compare their calling for “teach the controversy” about evolution, to a call to “teach the controversy” about whether the earth is round or flat, or whether the holocaust really happened. My sister is a history professor - and the holocaust denier comparison really hit home for her.

Finally it’s important to avoid making this a liberal/conservative deal. There are many conservatives who support good science. John Derbyshire from the National Review is one example.

I concur we need to become experts at communicating our message.

Spend a few hours observing the TV preachers – they are masters of communicating nonsense as ultimate truth. Pay some attention to the commercials and see how the advertisers’ ideas are communicated/sold. We need to know what we are up against and speak in the language and concepts of our listeners.

Profound discussion of probability theory will be lost on most listeners. instead saying something like “it” only had to happen once and “it” did or we wouldn’t be here. Or the odds of winning the ______ lottery are one in ___ millions but last year _n_ people did. Whether our audience gets the science details or not is not that important; instead it is important that they get the true concept.

John

As a practicing ecologist I agree with PvM that scientists do most definitely need to become adept in communicating their science to a varied, and often sceptical or disinterested, audience.

However, in PZ’s defense, I have to say that Pharyngula must be one of the best blogs around with respect to communicating the beauty and complexity of evolutionary science. He might not look like Tom Cruise or deliver lines like a Shakespearian actor, but the way he writes is sublime.

Randy Olson went Hollywood, and now the solution to every problem is acting lessons. Reminds me of some proverb.

What is needed to get across the lessons of evolution is Kate Beckinsale in skin-tight vinyl.

KiwiInOz Wrote:

However, in PZ’s defense, I have to say that Pharyngula must be one of the best blogs around with respect to communicating the beauty and complexity of evolutionary science. He might not look like Tom Cruise or deliver lines like a Shakespearian actor, but the way he writes is sublime.

PZ’s Pharyngula is a pleasure to read and PZ brings to the masses (evolutionary) concepts and research in a way that makes it a thrill to read.

And I still disagree with his comments on Randy. To me they are very separate issues.

I agree.

Geez. I STILL see that folks on the science side have no respect for a properly crafted message.

Let me repeat, substance is necessary, but NOT sufficient.

If you have contempt for the “style and glitz”, you’re going to have contempt for the audience…and they will notice it. Why folks on the science side insist on handicapping themselves from the get go, I’ll never understand–but if you have to “deign” to use marketing, flash and glitter, you’ve lost.

WORK to get the audience’s attention. Other people do. If you won’t do that, you’re sending the message to the audience that they aren’t worth the effort to craft a proper message. And the audience will presume that YOU aren’t worth their attention.

Give the audience the respect to work as hard as creating a message as everyone else vying for their attention.

Randy has made a good film that tells a good story. While story telling and oral traditions involve learning, they are radically different from what we think of as formal science education. Randy told a story; from which we each can draw our own equally valid, meaningful lessons that stimulate us to discuss; a humanities discussion where all ideas reflect internal understandings and are equally valid.

The goals of formal education have shifted from the relatively straightforward process of transmitting information to the more effective but complex task of facilitating development of a meaningful conceptual framework. This requires a good understanding of who the learners are and what they “know”. Learners need help to connect new knowledge to familiar, personal, referents. In science teaching, both at the K-12 and university levels, instructors rely heavily upon the abstract teaching methods of lecture and textbook readings supplemented by verification activities and laboratory. As a result, many students learn science superficially. This is the approach of many, so-called, education films. It is important to understand your audience. For example he PBS Evolution series is not viewed and understood in the same way by evolutionary biologists, students and/or the general public.

So Lynch and Myers think that science is difficult to understand, but that the general public should be “smart enough” to understand the difficult material without the presenter making any effort to communicate that material in a manner that is accessible to the audience?

This kind of thinking drives me bonkers. The logic goes:

1.) We don’t need to make any efforts to popularize science or make it more accessible to the layperson.

2.) But the layperson should still support and fund our efforts, and doesn’t get to have any say in how we use their money.

Carl Sagan was savaged by a lot of people in the physics community, but he did more to generate broad-based support for physics/science than anyone in the last 20 years. This hostile attitude that so many in the science community have towards science popularizers is so baffling - nobody is saying that you have to go around popularizing science, if you don’t want to. But if someone else does, and they are presenting the science accurately, why should you denigrate their efforts? It’s so narrowminded and self-defeating.

I like the lo-fat (not low-fat) diets that eschew high fat intake to lose weight. They fail miserably, of course, but they tell people what they want to hear.

The problem is, most people want to be told what they want to hear. Proof and reason is not stock and staple of our American culture – immediate gratification is.

It takes a lot of effort to understand evolution – but how hard is it to accept that “someone just created it, now shut up.”

My favourite song is 10,000 Maniacs’ “Candy Everyone Wants”:

“So their minds are soft and lazy…”

“Give ‘em what they want.”

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This page contains a single entry by PvM published on February 18, 2006 12:04 AM.

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