Flock of Dodos -- Yet Another Review.

I attended a screening of Flock of Dodos last night at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. The film was shown in the IMAX theater – of course it was not filmed in the IMAX format, but anyone who’s been in an IMAX theater knows how many people will fit into one. And the place was packed. The filmmaker Randy Olson (and his mother, Muffy Moose, who was featured prominently in the film) were on hand to introduce the movie and to answer questions afterwards, which was a special treat.

Before I go into gripes about the film, I want to say that on the whole it was excellent and definitely worth seeing. It was above all entertaining. It made for a decent if somewhat incomplete exposé of the ID movement. And a number of nonsense arguments that the IDists promulgate were knocked down, in many cases through the documentary technique of just letting the silliness speak for itself. The recurring theme of Mt. Rushmore was the sterling example of this.

Nevertheless, in spite of the film’s strengths, my job as semi-obsessed-ID-watcher was to notice those parts of the movie where I think Olson missed the mark. Below I’m going to go into a lot of detail about this, and it could take awhile, so you might want to buckle in. This isn’t because I think Olson got a lot of things wrong – there are really only a few issues here – it’s that I think these are key points that are important to movie’s theme and the broader issue of defending science. They are therefore worth expounding upon at length.

Problem number one: During an interview with Michael Behe, Olson as the narrator interjects to explain what ID is, and the problems that ID has with evolution. His response: It actually doesn’t object to evolution that much at all. In fact, according to Olson, ID for the most part accepts common descent, the ancient age of the Earth, etc. This is a classic mistake. Yes, Michael Behe does accept common descent, meaning he thinks that humans and chimpanzees evolved from a common ape ancestor. However, his position is very much in the minority among prominent ID advocates, to say nothing of their less prominent, more creationist-leaning base. Much of the material put out by the Discovery Institute and their associates attacks common descent. As for the age of the Earth, I think it’s probably safe to say that a majority of leading ID advocates accept an old Earth, but there are a significant number who are young-Earthers. Prominent examples would include Paul Nelson, John Mark Reynolds, and possibly Phillip Johnson, the godfather of the ID movement (but he’s too cagey to say). The official position of the ID movement on the age of the Earth is… there is no position. The Discovery Institute will not categorically state whether the Earth is really old or young according to ID theory. They say it doesn’t matter.

Now this is important for two reasons: First of all, it tells us that the ID movement isn’t really interested in doing science. You can’t exactly come up with a testable model of natural history if you can’t even agree on how old things are. ID therefore consists of little more than an attempt at poking holes in evolution, and has yet to come up with anything resembling an actual theory of its own. Secondly, there’s really no telling what kind of nonsense is going to worm its way into public school science classes if the ID people were to have their way with the curriculum. Since there is nothing in ID theory that says the Earth isn’t young, and since the IDists don’t spend time arguing that young-Earth views should be barred from classrooms (that would contradict half their arguments for allowing ID in), then there’s nothing to stop the most extreme young-Earth views from being taught. Most IDists would probably not intend for this to happen, but it’s no accident that the movement refuses to take a stand on the age of the Earth. It’s not that individual ID advocates just really don’t have any idea how old the Earth is, it’s that the ID movement was formulated in large part as a compromise between old-Earthers and young-Earthers. (The compromise does not sit well with many young-Earthers, but that’s another story.) The ID movement needs the young-Earth contingent for its sheer numbers and well-established base. When the door is finally thrown wide-open and the ID movement can have its way with science curricula, the young-Earthers will demand their due. Or, as Phillip Johnson has said, that is the point at which they’ll begin to debate the age of the Earth. Won’t that be fun.

Another thing that bothered me about the movie was the way in which the ID movement’s religious and ideological roots were glossed over. Yes, Olson does get around to mentioning the Wedge Document and the whole thing about destroying “materialism” somewhere about 2/3rds of the way through the movie. But we’re led to believe all the way up to that point that these ID people are perhaps just a bit misguided, or… maybe they’re even onto something. What I found quite telling is that the audience was audibly shocked when shown the whole “splitting the log of naturalism” icon and other creationist illustrations which blame evolution for all of society’s ills. The audience was even more shocked when Olson said during the Q&A session that a creationist doctor (or scientist, or whatever) once told him that our propensity for heart disease was a sign of good design because it gives God an easy method of punishing us for our sins. (It’s not as fun as the lightning bolt, but it gets the job done.) Anyone who is the least bit surprised by these things – which included most of the audience, apparently – doesn’t know much about the creationists and the ID people. This is clearly an area where Olson could have done more to educate, but his treatment of the ID movement’s rather extreme ideological underpinnings was tepid at best. To me these underpinnings are very important, not because they serve as a stick with which to beat the IDists, but because you simply cannot understand the movement without taking into account its creationist roots and reactionary politics. You cannot understand, for example, why the ID movement refuses to take a stand on the age of the Earth if you don’t know that the movement seeks to be a “big tent” for all forms of creationism. Nor can you understand why the far right-wing of the Republican Party is so enamored with ID, and why cramming it into public schools is by far the movement’s top priority, if you don’t know that ID’s whole _raison d’être_is to provide an intellectual justification for socially conservative political beliefs.

And now, finally, let me say a few things about the subject of communication and how we scientists apparently suck at it, a running theme of the movie which while true in many ways has justifiably irked some people. Yes, scientists could do a better job of communicating. Ain’t that the truth. However, a scientist’s main job is to be a scientist, not a public spokesperson. It’s no wonder that people who dedicate their lives to the deep study of certain issues have a hard time explaining things in layman’s terms to people who are not inclined to know anything about those issues at all. The movie even makes the excellent point that while scientists feel constrained by the truth, the art of public relations (or, less charitably, propaganda), which is essentially what the Discovery Institute is engaged in, is not so constrained. Yet Olson seems to want to blame scientists for their failure to successfully compete with the intellectual equivalent of fast-talking used car salesmen. I’m all happy to put at least some of the blame on scientists, but the thing that bothers me is that Olson gave no real solution for how we’re supposed to be better at communicating. Everyone who tried to ask for such a solution was instead treated to anecdotes on what not to do. Olson was full of stories of evolutionists who gave rotten presentations because they got too angry while their creationist counterparts remained poised and calm. In one example, the evolutionist he referred to made himself look bad by simply responding “no, no, no, no, no, no….” to some of the nonsense delivered by his creationist opponent.

What I don’t think Olson quite gets, and there was at least one questioner who I think tried to hammer this into him, is that it is not possible to debate creationists on a level playing field when they use the fast-talking used car salesman technique, which is of course all the time. I kept thinking about what the prominent Holocaust historian Deborah E. Lipstadt said when asked why she doesn’t debate Holocaust deniers: I don’t debate liars. It is near impossible to have a reasoned debate with someone, much less win that debate, if the person in question is not intellectually honest. If they keep spouting falsehoods that have repeatedly been shown to be false, sometimes “no, no, no, no, no, no….” is the only thing left to say. Perhaps a better approach is not to agree to appear with them until they clean up their act. There is no easy answer to this conundrum, but I’m afraid that Olson hasn’t even correctly diagnosed the problem.

In the end, the only message I got was that we’re apparently supposed to lighten up, to be all bright, cheery, and good natured with the people who are on an ideological crusade to smear us in every way possible. People who, for example, compare us to Nazis, Stalinists, and the dark lord Sauron. Okay, so we’re supposed to be happy with people who are utter jerks to us. Got it. Olson also made disparaging remarks about “angry bloggers”, which made me cringe because I feared he may have been talking about us, in which case my thought was that he must not read our blog. But that can’t be right because he later made a positive reference to PZ Myers, one of the most active members of our blog. This is very strange, because PZ is the very archetype of the angry blogger, the one who comes out with guns a blazin’ and holds nothing back. Yet in spite of his sandpaper persona, PZ is very effective and probably has more readers than the rest of us put together. This tells me that righteous anger, when properly channeled, works quite well. What, then, is Olson actually suggesting?

The happy dude stance became all the more ironic when during the Q&A session Olson recounted the Discovery Institute’s recent smear job on him. We’ve all seen the whole Hoax of Dodos nonsense. This was something that also seemed to shock the audience, which again tells me that the movie failed to inform them about how the ID movement really operates. Olson himself seemed somewhat surprised, as if he thought they were going to give him a pat on the back when up until this point all they’ve given him is the finger. In recounting the tale, however, Olson sounded rather… bitter. Almost as if he didn’t really appreciate being blatantly lied about. Hey, welcome to the club! It happens to all of us eventually. But what about being all happy with people who are acting like jerks to you? Why the angry blogger routine? Maybe Randy Olson should lighten up a bit.

(Cross-posted to Sunbeams from Cucumbers.)