Randy “Flock of Dodos” Olson Speaks

By Carl Zimmer | February 17, 2006 9:46 am

randy%20olson.jpgRandy Olson, director of the movie, Flock of Dodos has sent in some thoughts regarding the ongoing conversation here about his movie. A lot of commenters were offering opinions on how evolutionary biologists should communicate with the rest of us. I thought I’d publish his entire comment here in a post of its own. (Added note: Randy is fielding questions and opinions in the comment thread if you want to join in.)

Hi – A big thanks to Carl for such a nice write up about the screening (which was a huge amount of fun). At each of the panel discussions for the first round of screenings of “Flock of Dodos” people asked, “So what can we, as evolutionists, do about this problem?” Here’s a summary of some of my responses.


(Why is it this list took me all of one minute to outline? Could it be that the problems are so immense that it’s easy to make a lot of progress with even a tiny bit of effort?)

1) Quality Control – so much of the mass communication of evolution is so dull and uninspiring. Two specific examples – the 8 part Evolution series by PBS released a few years ago and the half hour video produced last year titled, “Evolution, Why Bother?” sponsored by AIBS. We ordered the 7th episode of the Evolution series, on God and religion, and found it unwatchable. At one of my recent screenings a member of the audience offered up that she ordered the second episode for a museum display and found the same thing – five minutes into it they shut it off. The AIBS video is tragically bad – nothing but talking heads and still images. It doesn’t matter how little budget they had, any introductory film student could have explained to them that film/video is a visual medium. The primary communication takes place through the images presented. When all you show are people’s faces talking, you are saying virtually nothing. These sorts of productions need the simple, honest feedback of evolutionists who have purchased their videos, shown them to their neighbors, and watched them fall asleep. Just send them a note and say this is not good enough. Raise the bar. Its that simple. When evolution media looks bad, evolutionists look bad. Cost of this Suggestion (to give media producers, including me, your critical feedback) to you: $0

2) Attitude – “Never rise above.” It’s one of the simple principles we learned in acting class. Whenever you condescend (as perhaps I did in the above paragraph) you lose the sympathy of your audience. Plain and simple. When evolutionists call intelligent designers idiots, its fine among evolutionists, but for the broader, less informed audience, it just makes everyone side with the people being condescended towards. It’s a simple principle of mass communication. Furthermore, even though Stephen Jay Gould was my hero in graduate school nearly 30 years ago, today he is culturally irrelevant for undergraduates at the introductory level. His essays, which I cherished as an introductory student back then, are now unusable. My students at USC literally asked me to never assign them his essays again. They find his style and voice to be arrogant, elitist, condescending, verbose … the list goes on and on. Cost of this Suggestion (to avoid rising above) to you: $0

3) Concision – it’s a byproduct of the information era. Get used to it. In fact, practice it. The most effective means of communication is through storytelling. The shorter, more concise, and punchier the story you can tell, the greater the interest you will hold with an audience. And yes, as a scientist you need to maintain accuracy and sometimes even precision. But still, just practicing being shorter and punchier doesn’t hurt anything. And you can see the results of this in Hollywood and advertising pitchmen – through sheer practice they are able to tell entire stories in very few words. Cost of this Suggestion (to practice being concise) to you: $0

4) Modernization – A CNN poll two years ago showed that 44% of Americans get their information on science and technology through television – more than any other medium. We are a television society. So why isn’t the world of science communication geared towards this, even just a little bit? This is a question you can ask of the major science agencies. There are now dozens of science writing programs around the country, but no Science Electronic Media programs. Cost of this Suggestion (to realize how mass media has changed from print to electronic) to you: $0

5) Prioritization – Effective communication costs money. Real, cold, hard dollars. Scientists tend to look at communication as a funny, frivolous option that is meant mostly for those who are predisposed to it. As a result they sit through technical talks with bad visuals and poor sound, and really don’t care. You can see this every week in your local departmental seminar. But on a higher scale, you see it in the tiny prioritization of science communication in research grants. Occasionally a few dollars are allocated for “outreach.” But compare this sort of prioritization with businesses making commercial products where they accept the need to spend perhaps half of their budget on marketing and advertising. This isn’t to say that scientists should turn themselves into cheap salesmen (which is the resentful complaint I hear to this suggestion), but the fact is the 9/11 Commission was the first government study to accept the need to allocate equal resources to its communication in order for it to make a difference. EVERYONE needs to accept we now live in an information-glutted world, and if you don’t pay sufficient attention to the communication of what you have to say, then what you have to say will go unheard. It’s a matter of priorities. Cost of this Suggestion (to allocate more funds to communication) to you: as much as you can afford – its time to make it hurt a little, to make up for the lack of prioritization in the past

6) Understanding – intellectuals are handicapped as mass communicators. I had this line in my film, but took it out because it sounded too insulting. But its true. Mass audiences do not follow people who think, they follow people who act. Intellectuals are trained to think, not act. Its one of their charming traits, but it’s also a handicap. Try taking an acting class and you’ll get to know about this intimately. And it’s not that you necessarily need to do something about this right now, it’s just that you need to start developing some awareness of it. Cost of this Suggestion (to consider the consequences of being too intellectual) to you: $0

7) Risk Taking/Innovation – every stock investor knows you allocate at least 10% of your stock portfolio to high risk ventures. The voices of mass communication of science today are very homogenized. There are no signs that formal investment in high risk innovation of science communication has been taking place. You need to look at your science agencies and ask what percentage of their funding is going to high risk, wild ideas. They may sound irresponsible, but without them, you end up with homogenization. Come on, folks, we’re talking about basic out-breeding dynamics here. Cost of this Suggestion (to take a few chances) to you: $0

8) Humor – it’s yet another byproduct of the information era. It’s no coincidence that news anchors, who were stoically serious 30 years ago, today tell jokes and tease each other. Or that The Daily Show on Comedy Central is the most popular form of news for kids (as well as A LOT of adults). Or that Michael Moore, Al Franken, and Bill Maher have become such popular news critics. It’s a major channel of communication. So lighten up, evolutionists. Cost of this Suggestion (to lighten up a bit) to you: $0

9) Unscripted Media and the Mass Audience – this goes with modernization. Whether you realize it or not, the mass audience has changed drastically in just the past decade. About half of the acting jobs that were available a decade ago in Hollywood have now been lost to reality television, which is a form of “unscripted entertainment” (yes, I know that even reality shows have a great deal of structure to them, but they are still far more unscripted at the fine scale than the standard sitcoms and dramas). The mass audience is bored, and desperate for anything unpredictable. Which is why when Richard Prum, in a moment of brilliance, yanked the microphone away from me as I was droning on about the need for spontaneity, the audience erupted more than any other moment in the entire evening. Cost of this Suggestion (to be more spontaneous) to you: $0

10) Sincerity – and furthermore, even though Dr. Prum was a bit ungainly in his performance after grabbing the microphone, the audience didn’t care. The gesture was so sincere, came from such a visceral level, showed such passion, such risk-taking, so much desire to act (rather than just pontificate as I was doing), that he stole their hearts. There is a great deal to be learned from that. Cost of this Suggestion (to be more sincere) to you: $)

MORE ABOUT: Evolution

Comments (126)

  1. Hello Randy;

    I really look forward to the opportunity of seeing “Flock”. Is there any thought of an advanced screening of this type in the Southern California area? I would love to attend.

    My question to you (and comment) is, who exactly are you offering these suggestions to? You see, I don’t think most people doing actual work in the evolutionary sciences care a bit about communicating their work to a wider audience. Certainly some do, but most are just doing work they find fascinating and rewarding. There are dozens of fields (biology, genetics, archaeology, paleontology, physics, geology, etc.) that in various ways advance our knowledge of evolution. Within each field are thousands of people doing work. Thus, these people could be called “Evolutionists” (in fact, certainly they are that. Whatever work they are doing at any given moment is predicated on certain evolutionary principles) but they are not part of some passionate movement to convince a wider audience that “truth has merit”!

    As I said in an earlier comment, I think in our highly specialized society, it has become the job of writers like Carl and filmmakers like you or TV producers, all with a deep interest in science to take scientific work and bring it, in a easily digestable plate, to the mass audience. So my comment is – I think your 10 points of advice are best given to your own colleagues. All the points make sense (some more than others). I just think that it is advice that would be put to use in your own works. It sounds, from Carl’s discription of “Flock”, that you personally used your own advice on several levels. I know Carl does as well – there is a reason that this has become a wildly successful blog, and I assume his books are selling as well as one might hope that a work describing science would do. Let’s remember, that a large chunk of the population has virtually no interest in science other than how the latest technologies personally effect them.

  2. Hi John – My comments are intended for every scientist. They, as much as anyone, have a vested interested in the mass communication of their field. It can and will have an impact on their careers. If evolution is seen as a marginal topic (which it absolutely and truly is in some places now, much more than ten years ago) they will lose their support. And I hate the idea that I could come off as an alarmist with this, but I’ve already gotten some doses of what I’m talking about in terms of evolution being marginalized. One major university (which shall go unnamed) has gone cold on plans to screen the film. A friend at that university was all excited about a possible screening two months ago, but then he called back and said, “All of the faculty want to see it, but the administration has asked me, simply as a favor to them, to not have it on campus — they don’t want to risk offending our Christian donors” (even though I don’t think the film offends anyone, its just the entire controversial topic that worries administrators).

    In the film Tom Givnish talks about NSF asking evolutionists to avoid using the word “evolution” in their plain english summaries. And across the country lots of teachers at all levels are avoiding the subject of evolution just because they don’t want to deal with controversy or upset students. There’s a passive creeping element to this issue that every scientist should be thinking of.

    On a different note that maybe makes my point clearer, I was a coral reef ecologist all through the 1980’s, happily studying the world’s coral reefs, and just blindly assuming (like the typical scientist you’re talking about) that good people were doing a good job of protecting the resources I was studying. By the early 90’s the damage to coral reefs began to become unavoidable, and by the late 90’s coral reef biologists like my colleague in our Shifting Baselines project, Dr. Jeremy Jackson, felt he had to speak out before everything he had studied in the Caribbean disappeared.

    And I think part of the feeling among us coral reef biologists of the 80’s is, “Why wasn’t somebody taking care of these resources to make sure this didn’t happen?” And the answer is we should have been watching out for the reefs ourselves, given that they were the source of our livelihood. So I think I feel the same way about evolution and evolutionists. There are good people working hard to defend evolution, but obviously they are under attack, and science communication is not all it could be. The evolutionists have a voice. They should use it to strengthen the efforts of those involved in communications.

    Lastly, regarding a SoCal screening, I think plans are coming together for a screening at Scripps Institute of Oceanography in La Jolla in early April. We’ll post the details on our website, http://www.flockofdodos.com sometime next week.

  3. It’s all interesting advice, and it makes sense, but…I’m looking at the opposition. One wildly successful example of media victory is the right-wing and their various organs, and if you look at what they put out, it’s as if they’ve taken some of your advice and marched off 180° in the opposite direction. 1) Talking heads sitting around tables yelling at each other; 2) “Pinheads” and other outright slams of anyone to the left of Joe McCarthy; 8) Absolute humorlessness; 9) Repetition, repetition, repetition of a set of scripted talking points; 10) This is arguable depending on your sympathies, I suppose, but I find none of them at all sincere.

    The Discovery Institute operationally ignores every one of your suggestions except #5 — they spend money on communications. It’s all they spend money on.

    Now I suppose you could argue that scientists are so bad at everything that even a crippled, pathetic failure like the DI can beat us — a 1 out of 10 trumps 0 out of 10, easy. But then I would argue back that throwing 10 difficult tasks at us is a distraction that’s only going to make our job even harder, when we could make gains if we worked on just one of those things and did it well.

    So, I’d ask you to prioritize. And also resolve some of those contradictions with things that we’re seeing that work well in the media–because it sure looks to me like humility (#2), for example, is a loser.

  4. Randy,
    Thanks much for this. The ten bullet points emphasize how far we have to go, but at the same time, how relatively straight-forward the path is. So much of communicating science is letting folks know just how much fun science is. The stories of the advances, dead-ends, jealousies, and passions behind scientific discoveries great and small are utterly compelling if we step off our pedestals loosen our ties, and just let ‘er rip.

    EO Wilson in a recent interview at the Edge, said “Ask the questions right from the beginning of the freshman class: What is the meaning of sex? Why do we have to die? Why do people grow old? What’s the whole point of all this? You’ve got their attention. You talk about the scientific exploration of these issues and in order to understand them you have to understand something about the whole process of evolution and how the body works.”

    Instead we treat education (and seminars, which often have a general audience) as Copernicus treated his critics. “Astronomy is for astronomers” he said. Better to have a Galileo as a model, a fellow who enjoyed mixing it up, and wrote in a clear lucid prose with plenty of comedy.

    I think the perfect laboratory for developing many of your ideas is the necessarily huge Intro Bio course at our major universities. These auditoriums full of students converge on 1 hour stage plays, complete with video, a sound system, and (with a remote microphone) Oprah-style audience participation. This often comes as quite a shock to freshmen majors and nonmajors who come from high school science classes that have more vocabulary than their French class and consist of memorizing and regurgitating facts and factoids on multiple choice tests. Moving beyond the “just the facts m’am” style of teaching, students find that science is exciting, relevant and fun.

    Evolution is about deep deep time, the panorama of history, our ongoing death struggles with some parasites and our amicable living arrangements with others, why we have to have our wisdom teeth yanked, and the devils bargain life struck with oxygen. It is hard to conceive how we have managed to make it dull.

  5. Mike Elzinga

    I posted this comment over on Panda’s Thumb, but is is relevant here also.

    When you think about it, the ID crowd has it pretty easy. One hundred percent of their budget can go to PR. None of it has to go for research.

    Those of us who have done research most of our lives have to deal with one hundred percent overhead costs, insufficient amounts for the research, with no PR money allowed. We may get some money to get research results published in peer-review journals or presented at conferences. Then there are the 12 to 18 hour days every day in the lab, or writing up results and going after new funding. None of the ID crowd has to do any of this.

    The public is not familiar with the intense critiques that go on in the scientific community and are uncomfortable with it when they witness it. ID promoters put on a pretty face, smile a lot, and hand out candy-coated crap. Their public loves it and thinks that scientists are jealous, crabby, negative-thinking defenders of their precious territory.

    Some of us do come across as being very unpleasant in public, and we need to be careful. The intense love and interest most of us have for our field doesn’t necessarily come across that way when we see something stupid being pawned off on unsuspecting citizens.

  6. CanuckRob

    Randy, these are great suggestons but PZ and others have apoint too, how do you compete with a bunch like the DI that spend the money on PR. My answer is to start (or use an existing)professional association that biolgists belong to (or better yet, start a new one that all US scientists, from any field, can join). The dues don’t have to be high and are probably tax deductible. The purpose is to promoate and provide good PR for science. I am not talking about them publishing the latest papers but funding and encouraging professional and powerful presentations to reach different audiences. I don’t know why scientists would be different than most intelligent hardworking professionals. They hire other professionals to do things outside their circle of competence.

  7. HS


    Your comments on my own hero, SJG, hurt. I’m sad to hear him described as elitist and arrogant. I don’t think the cricitism is fair, and I wonder if it was because he never condescended (as you advise). He assumed his readers were intelligent. Sometimes I had to reach, to reread, and even grab a dictionary, but it was always fun and always worth it.


  8. I think another twist on this is to point out that maybe one reason you found it so easy to list problems is that you’ve picked the obvious, including some problems that we’re already well aware of. It’s like having a general inspect the army and create lists of shortcomings — they’re too few in number, they don’t have enough ammo, the new recruits are poorly trained — and just declaring “fix those, and we’ll win.” Well, yeah. Finding weaknesses is easy. Declaring that the way to achieve victory is to be flawless in all matters is obvious.

    What is more useful and far more difficult is to rattle off a list of strengths (I suspect science might have a few) and explain how those might be exploited in spite of deficiencies elsewhere to achieve that victory.

    That’s what we’re looking for now. Telling scientists that they have to be witty and humorous and media-savvy and rich and less intellectual is nice (maybe we should also all have ponies, too, and hey, Very Large Breasts are always a plus), but it doesn’t help. What we need are accurate assessments of what we do have, and what we can capitalize on.

  9. I beg to differ on your review of the pbs series. Yes, a few were a bit boring, but one of my favorites was one that talked about the changes in mammals as they adapted to the ocean:


    Several students in both classes commented how much they learned from the video. After showing 30 minutes of the 60-min program, one class begged me to show the rest. I made a deal, and they choose watching it over playing a review game before their test.

    They learned a lot and loved it.

    It might not fit the standards of a film critic, but neither would most of the stuff put out by Hollywood, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t appeal to the masses.

  10. Well … so far this is a lot of fun. To begin with, its been really gratifying to see just about all the discussion of the Flock of Dodos film on blogs be about the communication of science, rather than the controversy over intelligent design. That’s a good sign already — that scientists know the disproving of intelligent design is a fairly simple issue that shouldn’t have scored as much media attention as it has, and that they realize its much more just a symptom of a bigger current problem with communication.

    And this is a very big problem. I spoke with a prominent scientist friend this morning who told me he met recently with Senator John McCain who said he is just plain angry over both the discrediting of global warming science that is going on, as well as the ineptitude of the science establishment to assert their authority. Personally, I brought this issue up in several of our panel discussions with the film and couldn’t believe the sense of helplessness I heard from some major scientists. 60 Minutes is going to have a segment on the Hanson/NASA issue in a few weeks. Perhaps that will help validate the issue. For now, I can’t believe we are living in a society that appears complacent over the idea of having the voice of public relations firms become as powerful as the science establishment (whatever that is, really).

    So a few replies:

    1) Prioritize – I would start with the attitude. Realize that every time you hear an evolutionist condescend, that person is doing a disservice. Its much easier said than done. Its counter-intuitive. I am the first to call people idiots and ignoramuses, etc. (as Givnish so generously voiced for me in the film). But there is a consequence to this. The second priority I would point to is #5 – Prioritization. In the past, communication was given a very low priority. I don’t know that many people ever envisioned a potential cost to this. But now the cost is here, in the form of, “The Republican War on Science,” as Chris Mooney so aptly titled it. And what exactly is this “war”. Are there bullets flying and dead bodies in the science world? No. It is a war of rhetoric and communication. The media world has become a major playing field. And yes, it costs a lot of money to fight this war, and it may seem wasteful, but you have to realize we don’t live in the United States of Intellectuals. We live in a society with a great deal of noise and inefficiency. This is the mistake the Kerry campaign made — they thought that the facts about his war record would win out. But they didn’t realize how inefficient mass communication is today. Its a tough struggle, but the science world has plenty of resources with which to engage.

    2) Intro Classes – I couldn’t agree more. I personally think that freshmen in ALL disciplines should be exposed to the incredible common sense aspects of evolution and natural selection. And this is where Stephen Jay Gould (who I’ll deal with in #4) was so tremendous. So many of his essays showed the relevance of evolutionary theory to daily life. His baseball essays to begin with — the idea that you could use a simple understanding of stabilizing selection to figure out why there are no more 400 batters was wonderful. And punctuated equilibria — the idea that so much of the world is characterized by periods of stasis, punctuated by short periods of drastic change — I’m always trying to explain to students that their lives are the same way — a few years of stability in high school, then drastic change to college, then a few years of stability, then more change. These are simple, common sense applications of the basics of evolution theory that could be translated in a such a manner that they could actually help students make sense of the huge amount of change they are subjected to and have a hard time understanding. I even wrote an essay in film school in my Silent Cinema class about the parallels between adaptive radiation in the Pre-Cambrian and the early experiments with silent film, many of which were creative dead ends.

    Evolution is about change, and change is just about the most difficult concept for all people to comprehend. I’ve spent the past four years running our Shifting Baselines Ocean Media Project that is built all around this idea — trying to comprehend change in space and time and not lose track of perspectives. And by the way, everyone should read Alexander Stille’s great book, “The Future of the Past,” which is all about change and information overload.

    3) Research vs. Communication – from the beginning of time, science has consisted of two things — doing research, then communicating what you’ve done. We all know that one without the other leads to a waste of time. Gregor Mendel and Alexander Fleming are just two of many examples of great science that wasn’t communicated effectively and thus went unnoticed for a long time. Scientists, of course, are somewhat responsible for both in that they have to at least write papers and give technical talks. But at the higher level we divide these tasks into specialists. There are lots of science communications specialists. Some of them do a tremendous job (like Carl Zimmer), but lots of others, not so much. And again, as I said in the previous comments, I’m not asking research scientists to step out of the lab and take speech classes. I’m asking them to take a look at the way their field gets communicated to the broad audience, and if they think its less than ideal, to make their opinions known.

    4) Stephen Jay Gould – Again, I am very sorry to say this. He was tremendous in his time. His essays will live on forever. And it deeply disappoints me to hear students today say they don’t like his writings. But they do say this, and its not just a few students. So everybody needs to wake up to this. The world has changed. What worked for mass communication of science in 1980 doesn’t necessarily work in 2006. The audience has changed. The audience has changed. The audience has changed. How many times can I say it. And the situation is not impossible. I staged a poker game in the film which feels like something from the tv show Big Brother as two of the guys get into a spat. At the screenings you can feel the audience leaning in — “ooh, suddenly this is interesting.” Its interesting because there’s a tiny level of unpredictability to it. Its not like a famous scientist sitting in his office pontificating about molecules. Suddenly sparks are flying. And feel free to denigrate it as cheap entertainment or whatever. The main point is that the audience has changed and they just aren’t willing to sit and watch the same old thing. All this means is that there are new, exciting opportunities to reach them. BUT those new pathways of communication will not be discovered without innovation and taking some chances.

    5) Telling Scientists to be Charismatic — again, that’s not what I’m saying. I’m telling scientists to tell the science communicators they need to be more charismatic (and if you want to get angry and tell me I’m a lousy science communicator because I’m spoiling everyone’s fun by raising these points you’re welcome to). There are indeed some good spokespersons out there for science, and they don’t even have to be celebrities. There are ways to find these characters and groom them for their roles in communication, but I don’t see that going on right now. So again, finally, the biggest suggestion I am making is for greater innovation and exploration in new ways to communicate science. Not a total revamping of the system, just a realization that there is a lack of diversity of approaches.

  11. Rosie Redfield

    I’m about to devote one hour of my freshman Biology course to creationism and intelligent design. I’ve decided to do it because we university faculty need to take responsibility for educating the science teachers and health professionals that the general public gets their scientific education from.

    I’ve never done this before and don’t know of anyone else who has, so I’m having to develop my approaches and ideas from scratch. Are there any resources for doing this? Has anyone put lecture notes for a class like this online? I’ve read all the standard stuff (e.g. what’s at the NCSE site), but haven’t found anything very appropriate for my audience. (email me with ideas please)

    I think my approach will be to present ID and creationism as part of a massive “war on biology” being mounted primarily by the Christian churches and their affiliates. (Yes, the war is explicitly directed only at evolutionary biology, but evolution is the foundation of all biology, so it’s really a war on biology.) I’m not going to try to convince them that ID is wrong. Instead I’ll simply explain to them that we need to defend biology against misinterpretation by those with non-scientific motivations.

  12. Bill

    As PZ said, I think that a lot of the suggestions sound like good ideas, but they’re not what has succeeded politically to date. It may be that folks here in the US aren’t quite grown up enough to appreciate civility.

    Also, if we start calling ourselves “evolutionists”, we’ve given away one battle. People who believe in a round earth don’t call themselves ’round earthers’–instead the lowbrows are called ‘flat earthers.’ It should be the same way with evolution: act like you assume it’s the default view, and that only the other side needs a special label. Or if you must use a label, use something more general, like ‘reality-based coalition.’

  13. How do we win these battles?

    I’m going to back up John Lynch on this one. The Flock of Dodos guy, Randy Olson, has a list of “TEN THINGS EVOLUTIONISTS CAN DO TO IMPROVE COMMUNICATION”, and I have to say I’m not excited about them. While…

  14. Rosie–we’re teaching it for the first time this year, too. The syllabus for our intro class has some links — in that section, we start by teaching them basic facts of taxonomy and biodiversity, then give them a simple introduction to the concepts of evolutionary biology, and in the third week I give them a lecture on creationism. I emphasize the strengths of the biological evidence and confront the common fallacies of creationism and ID head-on, rebutting a set of their claims directly.

    We’re also using the National Academies of Science book, Science and Creationism, as standard reading. It’s short and to the point.

  15. I disagree with the notion that understanding your audience and pitching ideas in a way that your audience understands them is somehow “been there, done that, didn’t work”. Its like the old saw of the professor saying “I taught them the material, they just didn’t learn it.” Well, operationally, he may want to reevaluate his definition of “taught”.

    It seems the first step in establishing communication is to show some empathy. Now I’m not talking about debating Johnson or Ham here, I’m talking about communicating with someone who has grown up equating evolution with “I came from Monkeys”. The fact is a lot of folks are people of faith. They are our audience. And Randy is absolutely dead on about condescension: you talk down to anybody and communication is over.

    Getting to Rosie’s question, I teach in the buckle of the bible belt. And my first lecture in Intro Bio is on the different ways people have of knowing about the world (many of us are Ph. D.’s, right?). I break it up into instinct/intuition, authority (e.g., faith, and the teacher/student relationship) and science. We spend a lot of time thinking about how we know something is beautiful, how we know something is evil, and how we know something is factual. Fact is, we can’t say “that’s not science” unless we have some other categories. In those lectures we establish that in faith we trust someone and that is all the evidence we need, and in science we need evidence before we can possibly trust anything (and even then that trust is provisional). There are plenty of wonderful quotes from the Bible, Augustine, and the TaoDeChing that make for useful compare and contrast examples. Students also dig that in science folks are happy to be proved wrong, whereas in faith, to be wrong falls under the category of betrayal.

    So this might not work for PZ, but if you lay the groundwork so that a person of faith is not immediately threatened by science then you can have a much more fruitful discussion. I don’t get to IDC until the second week (after the Aristotle’s chain of being, Paley’s Natural Theology,Lamark and Darwin). By the time we get there, we see that IDC is Natural Theology without the courage of its convictions–a blatantly political sham that would disgust Paley. We turn the issue of fairness on them.

    To summarize, I don’t think this is about debating shills from the Discovery institute. This is about communicating with folks who may distrust you and don’t know as much about the subject as you do. This is an opportunity to teach folks who are not graduate students in EEB but have learned what they have learned about biology from high school; U.S. high school.

    We have a lot of work to do.

  16. theodore price

    Randy, I really think you’re onto something with your suggestions. Especially attitude. I recently attended a student led evolution vs ID debate at the university where I work (in Canada) and the evolution side immediately started in with the condescending tone. While I could feel the better part of me cheering them on, it was obvious that greater than 50% of the audience had already tuned them out, and they hadn’t even started. The ID side was all positive, God (or some designer) is involved in your biology etc., etc., and most people ate it up. It was obvious. There was no mention of why evolution is important or how you can learn more about it, and even if there was, the people that needed to hear that message stopped listening after 3 minutes (at least to the evolution side).

    Evolution vs. ID is just one example of a growing problem. More and more people don’t understand science and more importantly, they don’t understand why it is even important for their daily lives. Far too many people are intimidated by science and tune out immediately when they are confronted by it, in any situation. The real way to deal with this is through elementary and secondary education, but there is a whole generation, or more, out there and working who already have this attitude engrained in them. We need to do more, and do it better, remembering that people don’t have the viewpoints they do because they are stupid, but because they don’t have the slightest idea what the mountain of evidence that supports our scientific viewpoints are. They’re not going to get it immediately, but if we start making a real effort, they will eventually (at least a portion).

    Our very lives, as we know them, depend on it. We cannot rely on increases or even maintence of government support for grant funding forever without a concerted effort. The more the public understands about the importance of what we do the more they will clammer for increases and the more great minds will walk through our laboratory doors. I’d gladly lose my job because I’m no longer smart enough to compete with a new generation of top flight scientists but I can think of nothing sadder than continuing to watch support dwindle away to the point that there is no longer for us to pursue our ideas for the sake of the advancement of science (at least in this country).

  17. Your description surprises me: it’s exactly the opposite of what I’ve experienced, and I’ve attended a lot of creationist/intelligent design talks. Every one resorts to similar attacks on science and scientists. There’s the usual “evolution can’t explain X, Y, and Z”, which escalates into claims of conspiracy, and then we hear about those Darwinists trying to convert children to secular humanism and godless atheism, and before you know, it’s Stalin and the Chinese and all the evils a good Christian has to face in this modern world. This has been true of everyone from small town ministers to the big guns of ID, like Phillip Johnson.

    The biologists, on the other hand, talk about the evidence. I preface my talks by saying there’s nothing in evolution that requires atheism (and I am a godless atheist, so I hate to do it), and even when I’m directly rebutting creationist claims, it’s with scientific evidence, not an argument that they’re stupid or that creationism leads to primal chaos.

    The “condescending tone” always seems to come from the fact that at some point, you have to say that the creationists are wrong. It’s hard to avoid that. That’s what the ‘debate’ is all about, after all.

  18. I love the point about humility. Watching more scientists waive their credentials and shout back at the IDers does nothing for me or for advancing science. It’s just more of what we all saw too much of in school.

  19. SMgr

    There really is a communication gap. I’ve been on both sides of the evolution debate growing up. Many of people in my family are fundamentalists. I’ve found very little in the way of effective materials that show high-detail photos of PRIMARY sources and evidence–in context–that might cause some doubt on their part. I was really disappointed in the recent National Geographic evolution issue for example. It was a typically scientific explanation.. but that isn’t what is needed.

    I understand that the mindset will deny and twist anything shown. That is why primary sources are so important. A drawing of a whale skeleton or horse sequence will be called a “fabrication” and the conversation stops there. A long detailed textual argument they will never read.

    What I’m looking for is a book containing collection of high-resolution photos of key evidence for evolution (with brief but accurate explanations) that immediately grabs attention and makes one start asking questions about things like the age of the earth and human origins.

    Such a book might include a guided tour of the geological column showing both large scale pictures with overlap from location to location and detailed pictures of a representative range of types of fossils that are found in each major layer.

    It could include photos of the core samples that showing millions of varves (Both the entire chain of cores made and closeups along the chain).

    It could have high resolution photos of embryos (such as people with “gills” and tails).

    It could show geological anomolies that indicate slow processes such as tilting/erosion/more deposition. Pictures of sequences that alternate between ocean, river, desert, etc. and the representative fossils range from each or other pictoral evidence (ripples) that would give the reason why scientists think they come from those environments.

    It could compare photos of core samples from current seabed being formed now with similar sequences in rock layers made by the same processes.

    It could show detailed photos of the earbones and teeth etc. in the whale fossil sequence to show why scientists consider those fossils to be intermediate.

    Etc. etc.

    Does such a book / video exist? That is the kind of thing we need in this debate. Detailed PRIMARY evidence that one can point to and say “explain this” that doesn’t take hours of reading to understand.

    Looking forward to seeing the film!
    Thanks for the great blog.

  20. theodore price

    PZ, the debate was between undergrads and grad students on the evolution side and mostly undergrads on the ID side. Making the point that creationist were wrong was the first thing out of the evolution side and was the thing that put off a good portion of the audience, or so it seemed to me. Of course, this is correct. Scientifically, the creatonists are wrong. The problem is that this distinction is not being made. They don’t think that they are wrong, and a book they value more than what we are going to tell them supports that view. In my opinion, no one needs to tell them they are wrong. We need to concisely and convincingly present evidence for evolution to them and make them interested in learning more. We haven’t had them since they were 8-13 to indoctrinate so they likely won’t leave having changed their mind — but — if their interest is peaked they will learn more and we can make sure that good, attractive info is out there for them that is easily accessible (free of our jargon). I believe that if this can be done many will either eventually understand that evolution explains the diversity of life on this planet today or they will see evolution as the scientific explanation and creationism as their religious explanation (as many working and suceessful biologists do on a daily basis). Just my 2 cents.

  21. PZ wrote “The ‘condescending tone’ always seems to come from the fact that at some point, you have to say that the creationists are wrong.”

    You have it backwards. The success condition is that at some point the audience says the creationists are wrong. There are proven techniques for giving them that belief as well as the will to act. Humor. Socratic dialog. Snide questions that your opponent cannot answer. Frequent breaks to avoid overload. Music, sound, visual effects. Repetition. Suprise. Dramatic tension. Tangible examples. Insinuating a question so the audience can gleefully answer it themselves. Simple pictures and diagrams. Confidence. In other words, the standard techniques of social influence. This is a bunch of hairless monkeys, man! You’re not keying data into a computer, you’re competing with modern distra… ooh! shiny!

    Likewise you have to avoid certain things. Subtleties that appear to be wrong at first glance. Long lists of facts, long chains of logic. Things that vicariously embarrass the audience. (‘Why did he just call that nice old man a damn idiot?’ the spectator asks to himself.) Using gold-plated $50 words that make no sense. Dithering; lack of confidence.

  22. Carl, you should be particularly proud of your blog today. I think it really shows how valuable blogging can be. How would a film maker who does work regarding the sciences and has personal thoughts on how those sciences can be better presented to a mass audience, be able to have a unplanned discourse with various scientists/teachers on a Friday afternoon? Of course, you have to put up with the occasional layman popping in and commenting (ahem)… but it’s been valuable to us as well. I really appreciate the words of Mike Kaspari (among others who echoed a similar point)”The fact is a lot of folks are people of faith. They are our audience. And Randy is absolutely dead on about condescension: you talk down to anybody and communication is over”.

    I really enjoy PZ – because he says what I agree with. I cheer on his rants the same way I cheered for Sugar Ray Leonard when he was dancing around an opponent, peppering his face and body with shots that came out of nowhere, and for which there was little defense. But this isn’t boxing. And while I personally like PZ, I would wager he has never changed a single mind. I don’t expect him to change. He shouldn’t. What he does has great value. But others who are not so inclined need to approach this a different way, because there is definitely a place for it.

    Most of the folks in my social circle are “true believers”. If we got into a discussion about evolution and I called them a moron or an “IDiot”, it would be the last time they spoke to me. First of all, I’d be wrong. Many over them are more intellectually tuned-in than I am. If I simply tell them what I have learned over the years and encourage them that they too should look into it (offering suggested reading and science programs), that their personal faith is not at stake, and that on some level they can reconcile the two (though I admit to them that it would indeed require them relinguishing a literal interpretation of biblical verses), then occasionally I make some headway.

    Anyway, this is wonderful stuff and I too would like to know the answer to the question from RandyS – “Does such a book / video exist? That is the kind of thing we need in this debate. Detailed PRIMARY evidence that one can point to and say “explain this” that doesn’t take hours of reading to understand”.

  23. FastEddie

    Wow, I was really surprised to read Randy’s comments on the PBS Evolution series. I thought the series was great! I think there is a need and a market for more concise presentation of evolutionary science, but the PBS series provided much-needed meat; there is a segment of the viewing public which can actually sit still for a whole hour and pay attention to people talking about a complex topic.

  24. SMgr

    The point of such a book/video would not be to argue, convince, or prove. The point would be to present evidence in a form that 1) is least easily dismissed 2) engages curiousity and wonder and 3) encourages doubt about what they may have been told about 4000 year old floods, etc. directly from the primary evidence. 4) keeps it SIMPLE 5) demonstrates ways people can be on the look-out for such evidence themselves in their own lives (e.g. roadcuts?)

    The DI and other creationist sources are very good at spreading doubt without evidence. We need to get a lot better at spreading doubt WITH evidence.

  25. Flock of Dodos continues

    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…

  26. Mike Elzinga

    I have my best successes if I listen to my wife first.

  27. Sorry, but “improving communication” is such a vague goal as to be useless. My summary of what each point is asking:

    1) Do not be “dull and uninspiring” (I agree, but hard to do)
    2) Be sympathetic (sympathetic to what? this is a slippery slope to pandering)
    3) Be concise (agreed)
    4) Be like television (wtf? no way!)
    5) Put more resources into this type of communication (no – let the scientists do science and don’t cut the resources for science further)
    6) Learn to act (see #5)
    7) (I cant figure out what this has to do with improving communication)
    8) Be humourous (but not in a way where it contradicts #2, #3, & #4?!!)
    9) Appear spontaneous and unscripted (pandering again, and dont contradict all the other suggestions)
    10) Appear sincere (and dont contradict all other suggestions)

    My take on this? Olson has a unique and interesting perspective that science can learn from, but it’s not refined enough yet to follow up on (or make much sense of yet), but it certainly comes across as interesting communication when you don’t think about it for any length of time. (And that’s the problem).

  28. Wow, too many messages since yesterday! But here are some comments and resources that address at least some of the questions here.

    Let me start by establishing my credentials, and hopefully my credibility (since I don’t have a blog of my own!). I have coordinated an intro bio course (majors and non-majors) at Kansas State University (Manhattan KS) every fall for the last 8 years. That course enrolls 700-800 students, but we teach it quite differently than most places, using a studio format. Write me if you want those details. We teach evolution in the first unit, since it is the foundation of biological science, and we keep mentioning it all through the semester. As a result of this assignment I have had many students in my office discussing their views of evolution; I don’t know if I have “heard it all”, but I might be getting close. I also participate in public forums discussing this topic, so I have some experience talking to the “general public” about ID/evolution. In fact, at the forum where I gave the introductory talk last Wednesday, the 100 or so attendants included about a dozen students from the local Christian school.

    For Rosie and PZ – you are not on your own. Craig Nelson, a biology professor at Indiana University, has lots of ideas about how to take advantage of student misconceptions in talking and teaching about evolution. Just Google Craig Nelson Evolution and follow some links

    For SMgr, who wants a book or video with lots of “primary evidence” to help convince folks about the validity of evolution. There is no resource like that, nor will there ever be. Think about it. The opposition can pick at thousands of factoids, and you will never know what to expect next. Sure, there are a few “usual suspects”, but one thing you learn quickly when you engage the general public on this topic is that there is no way to predict all the things that you will need to know in order to answer their questions. One excellent primer is a Scientific American article from 2002, “Fifteen answers to creationist nonsense” (available on our course website at http://www.ksu.edu/biology/pob/wackononsense.pdf ). But please accept the fact that as long as we allow the opposition to frame the debate on their terms, picking at whatever factoid they find unclear, you can’t get a resources like you want.

    But more importantly, facts are not enough. Most of the dialogues that I have with KSU students are not a search for primary evidence, but rather a search for a way to get past the misconceptions, the propaganda, and the false dichotomy that “you can either believe in evolution or you can believe in God.” You will get some students who refuse to listen at all, apparently believing that they will go to hell if they allow themselves to even hear about the other side. But most are simply victims of the false dichotomy, and so the way to reach them is with logic and critical thinking, not with primary evidence (which they are incapable of interpreting anyway). They will tell you that all scientists are atheists, for example, and you can gently ask them how many scientists they know. By probing what they know and how they know it, you can avoid the trap of trying to explain science that you may not understand (biologists like myself may not know much about sedimentology!). Most of all, you can convince them that they don’t have to make a choice between science and god. That doesn’t require primary evidence, but it does require patient listening. You won’t reach all of them, but even in those cases you might spark a bit of critical thinking.

    Which brings me to the most important point that appears sporadically in these blog comments. We are not just talking about anti-evolutionary thinking, we are really talking about anti-intellectualism. This has a long history in America, dating back to at least Tocqueville’s time, but seems to be gaining ground. That comes not only from the conservative right, wishing to take us back to a time when there were no intellectuals outside the Church, but also from the post-modernist left, whose obsession with “other ways of knowing” makes them suspicious of science. It is very hard to use facts or primary evidence to reach someone who is automatically suspicious of science, and basically just suspicious of intellectual authority. So we need to be spontaneous, or charismatic, or make movies rather than talk about ideas. Yeah, we sure do have a lot of work to do… Will Rogers may have said it best: “There’s only one thing that will kill the movies, and that’s education.”

  29. Pete K

    Why is this problem limited to biological evolution? Why no to, say, quantum physics and relativity?

    Surely WHY there is any problem with bio. evo. is also worth addressing!

  30. SMgr

    Dave R,

    Thanks for your excellent post and experience in this area. I particularly liked your point about anti-intellectualism.

    > The opposition can pick at thousands of factoids,

    Understood. I’m not saying that the kind of book I am describing is a cure-all. But it is very frustrating that most sources of information on evolution contain hand-drawings and artist conceptions rather than high quality photographs. These are instant conversation killers. “15 Answers” while a great read suffers from the same problem. Drawings. Graphs. And lots of text. It would be instantly dismissed. It won’t be read.

    If the text of a book talks about about the unique S-shape of the whale ear, I want to see a high quality picture of it in all of the skulls found, not a hand-drawing or just text describing it. That has no weight at all with this audience.

    I am looking for high-quality material that can raise questions/doubts and be understood within a few seconds. Large, high quality photos would be preferred.

    There is no silver-bullet, but I think there is a place for material like this and I have not been able to find what I’m looking for. It may not appeal to intellectuals to make such materials because it would not a logical argument. In a way, that is the point about the communication gap: we need to provide materials that address the issue in terms other than logical, textual argument.

    We need a larger spectrum of materials.

    Again, thanks for your response.

  31. As a conservation professional who does not work in Academia, I find this dialog fascinating. A fundamental tenant of conservation is that people do not preserve what they do not value. People do not value what they do not understand, directly benefit from or find personally appealing. And cold hard facts alone do not trump emotion, as this discussion of evolutionary science and intelligent design clearly demonstrates.

    I would suggest that there are legitimate and highly effective contemporary examples of “popular science” – as opposed to academic publications – that effectively communicate evolutionary concepts to a wide audience. Walk into any airport bookstore- as I did in Atlanta recently- and you’ll find large displays of Jared Diamond’s Collapse alongside the standard blockbuster paperbacks. Less well publicized but equally engaging is Tim Flannery’s The Eternal Frontier, and I can’t begin to count how many landowners in the Northeast have been captivated by copies of Tom Wessell’s Reading the Forested Landscape and the new eyes it has given them to see their natural surroundings and the legacy of natural disturbance and past land use on our woodlands.

    I appreciate there is some discomfort in academic circles about the legitimacy of popular science, and popular hisory for that matter. The works I noted above are not junk science, nor do they dumb down important and complex ecological concepts. Rather, they capture our imaginations, tell stories that hold our attention and provide new understandings of our ecological place and time. You may not agree with everything presented in such popular works – I take issue with the methodology used in SJG’s The Mismeasure of Man- but there is no arguing with the way they effectively communicate to a large audience that needs to be engaged with issues that will play out beyond their lifespans but are impacted by their choices today.

  32. Mary

    My credentials are a little different form most of you. I teach 7th grade life science in a rural Title 1 school in North Florida. Pretty conservative area. I do have a better than average background in biology and have always been fascinated by evolution and read a lot on the subject(Gould is hard to read!). I also spent 8 weeks one summer in a biotech lab at UF.

    I have also been influenced by Miller and Levine who spoke at the Florida Science Teachers conference last Fall. They are excellent communicators and like to talk to teachers. (look at their website with some good slide shows on ID versus Evolution http://millerandlevine.com/talks/index.html )So we had some great discussions. They also were involved in the PBS series and I ended up using the session on the Evolutionary Arms Race in my classroom this Fall and the 12 and 13 year olds loved the film and were fascinate by the sequences on TB and the Russian prison system.
    I agree with many of the comments on debating ID versus Evolution, especially the fact that it is a false dichotomy. Many scientists Understand evolution and use it as a tool and have Beliefs that they would never wish to subject to the critical process of science (and then have to discard if they continue with the process).
    One recommnedation of Miller is to start with ecology and then teach evolution because the ecological principals help place evolution in a more understandable context. I teach ecology first semester and also spend the first 9 weeks of the year teaching and practicing the scientific method. So when we come to evolution at the end of that semester my students can understand me when I describe science as a tool that we use as long as we don’t find a better one, but a tool that helps us survive (I use the analogy of a hammer you use to build a house to withstand a coming hurricane, and then ask if you will keep the old claw hammer or discard it for a nail gun with the storm rapiidly approaching). we also discuss the role of belief in deciding how you use the hammer and what kind of life you live in that house.
    Many of these children come from homes and churches that ar part of the ID movement and they deserve our respect and support as we try to lead them out of the false dichotomy toward an understanding of how science searches for the truth and protects us.
    I use viral and microbial change examples to explain the concepts of natural selection and to illustrate how evolution forms the basis of vaccine production and biotechnology. These are both less threatening and also good examples of how our survival may depend on using good science.
    But none of the facts will get across or mean anything to our audience if they are threatened by them and feel a lack of respect for their beliefs from me or you. These are skills that teachers in secondary school and in college undergraduate classes can bring to the table. I think a collaboration between teachers and scientists might be very valuable on this subject. We have the communication skills you need and you have the knowledge that we need to get our k-16 population better educated about science.
    I belong to Florida Citizens for Science and am working on bringing more secondary teachers into the organization which is mostly scientists right now. There is a network of state organizations out there and I think it is important to bring the teachers into them.

  33. More on Communicating Science

    Carl Zimmer has more on The Loom about communication and evolution, with an interview with Randy Olson, director of the movie A Flock of Dodos. I believe he has some good suggestions about communication, but I also believe we are still missing the lar…

  34. SMgr

    I am no marketing expert (my training is engineering), but essentially what I am talking about are materials that get the _attention_ and peak the _interest_ of the pre-logical mindset. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AIDA_(marketing).

    Until there is _desire_ to understand more, there will be no effort expended to read and understand detailed, mainly textual scientific accounts. Especially accounts that are obviously derisive of one’s own position (such as a title like: “Creationist Nonsense”). Until that point, such arguments are largely a waste of time.

    As an engineer and scientist-wannabe, it bugs me that the human brain has to work this way, but that appears to be reality. Yep, its marketing. Eeeeeeeuuuww =)

  35. I guess I am a bit confused about the audience/target for the book/video that SMgr desires. In the first comment SMgr writes:

    “Many of people in my family are fundamentalists. I’ve found very little in the way of effective materials that show high-detail photos of PRIMARY sources and evidence–in context–that might cause some doubt on their part.”

    A later clarification reads:

    “The point of such a book/video would not be to argue, convince, or prove. The point would be to present evidence in a form that 1) is least easily dismissed 2) engages curiousity and wonder and 3) encourages doubt about what they may have been told about 4000 year old floods, etc. directly from the primary evidence. 4) keeps it SIMPLE 5) demonstrates ways people can be on the look-out for such evidence themselves in their own lives (e.g. roadcuts?)”

    But the latest message I find:

    “I am no marketing expert (my training is engineering), but essentially what I am talking about are materials that get the _attention_ and peak the _interest_ of the pre-logical mindset.”

    I am not sure about the “pre-logical mindset”, and it may indeed describe some of my relatives. But I’ll assume that we really are talking, as the first two comments imply, about folks (grown up or adolescent) who are old enough and educated enough to be able to question. and also understand the answers. If that is the case, I still don’t think, along with Mary, that facts are the best ammunition at the outset.

    The reality is that in almost every case, such questioning (e.g. “Show me some transitional fossils”) just does not come from a deep-seated curiosity about the details of evolution, paleontology, etc. There is a deeper source. Nobody is asking you for a cogent explanation of how a transistor works; they just accept that sort of science, plug in their iPod and go about their business. Why is that? Because no authority figure in a Sunday School has told them, during their pre-logical age, that the science behind iPods threaten their immortal soul. So going along with that framing of the debate, as I noted before, just means that you will never run out of questions from folks like that. It gets exhausting once you realize that there will be no end to that sort of question!

    As Mary notes, you need to short-circuit this strategy and go to the SOURCE of the questions. That would be an attempt to get them to think about the assumptions that underlie their belief that evolution threatens their immortal soul. Ask “Why do you think that all scientists are atheists? Why do you think that you cannot believe in god and accept the fact of evolution?” Combat that false dichotomy successfully, and then you can talk about the real facts, elicit the necessary curiosity, and make some progress in science education. But a book of “evidence” for evolutionary arcana is not a good first step, IMHO. Sure, I’d like to see it, for my own personal curiosity, but I just don’t think it would be a useful pedagogical tool.

  36. 1. I worked on the PBS Evolution series: I begged to work on it. But you’re right. It was dull. But you need to do a lot more than say that. You need to tell us how to do a large series on a complex subject like evolution.

    2. I’m with PZ on attitude. Maybe someone should be polite to the IDiots but you fail to make a case. I agree: calling one’s opponents silly names doesn’t get you anywhere to onlookers. But when it comes to creationists the solution is not to be more polite. The solution is to refuse even further to take them seriously. The solution is to pile on the vitriol and ridicule and laugh them back into the margins of American politics, where they belong.

    They are morons. And they are dangerous. You get nowhere being polite. You give them status they don’t deserve.

    3. Yes to electronic communication with a big caveat. Compared to print, electronic media, including computers, are in a primitive state. If you really want to understand science, you have to do science. And you have to read science. And science writing must improve.

    4. There is a difference between using humor and lightening up. Any humor used needs to avoid self-deprecation. The battle over IDIocy was dead serious. There is nothing to be gained in arguments with IDiots by poking fun at yourself or science.

    5. Concision, yes. But some ideas take time and long explanation. So your real point is be concise, even when you have to take your time.

  37. Thanks to all of you for one of the more interesting and thoughtful discussions I have seen on this issue. This discussion has focused on communication, one of several points that Randy makes in the movie and I agree with him; the lack or inability to communicate is probably one of the leading causes of dysfunction within the human condition. It is my observation of these discussions that there are a lot of different types of communication that are discussed and we tend to jump between them. Education is one and another is marketing.

    I am somewhat cynical about marketing because my experience is that it seems like the point of this kind of communication is to offer me the opportunity of more and better sex if I “buy” the marketers point of view. I am hoping that scientists do not engage in this unless they can deliverer better then my toothpaste. The marketing around ID/evolution is that if you buy the ID point of view it will save your soul and most likely society as a whole.
    Education is distinctly different and that conversation is distinctly different with different developmental levels; adults, K-12 school children, University students. It is in K-12 education that educators strive for “science for all Americans” and that the voice of science is reaching the large majority of citizens through science educators who are not always scientists. Do not read that as a problem — there are many examples of outstanding science education programs from across the county. I am trying to make the point that where people learn about science and engage in science matters and that the developmental levels of the people involved in the conversation is critical. The education level also matters since only a third of the U.S. population has Bachelor’s degrees and even the conversations with undergraduates and graduate students needs to be handled differently. Modern marketing and education for the general public are (in my opinion) polar opposite forms of communication; with each form of communication having it own set of issues and conditions to be effective. One size does not fit all.

    One point about communication in the film seems to be missing from these discussions. In the film, Randy very effectively eliminates ID as science and supports scientific research and evolutionary biology. How does he do it? He does not present laundry lists of evidence, pro and con, and yet by the end of the film it is pretty clear. Education al all levels is a specific form of communication and I am hoping we (scientists and science educators) can learn from the film and these discussion, how we can more effectively supporting learning and understanding.

    Also note I did not take Randy’s advice about humor – well until now. Do you know how many southern Californians it takes to change a light bulb? Fourteen – one to do it and thirteen to share in the experience.

    For those of you wanting a book (and since we are on Carl’s blog) I would suggest you check out his Evolution: the triumph of an idea book. While is it the companion to the PBS series it is different and really very good.

  38. Wow. Such great stuff.

    Let me start with SMgr request for a basic book with lots of interesting, clear pictures, simple, yet overwhelming. And Dave Rintoul’s objection that you are just presenting “factoids” that you will endlessly receive questions about.

    Yes. But you, and I and all supporters of evolution who bother to have these discussions with people who reject evolution, get those endless questions anyway! We all know the 20 or so basic “clever” questions that your creationist friend or father-in-law will throw at you as soon as the discussion starts up. Not being a scientist or an educator I sometimes have an answer, and sometimes have to say – “there IS an answer, I’ll get for you and get back to you”. But the point is, I know many people that I have a good enough relationship with that if I handed them a book like that and asked them to spend an hour or two examining it, they would. If they don’t buy in, or still have endless questions (which by the way, the text COULD PREDICT and have answers for), at least I got them THINKING – and that’s what SCIENCE is all about!

    Evolution IS being marketed – some of it more effective than others. I haven’t seen the PBS series, but there are tons of programs on PBS, BBC, the Animal Planet channel, Discovery Channel, National Geographic Channel, etc. that people REALLY DO watch! It’s geared to a “average education” and the shows INVARIABLY make reference to evolution and, believe it or not, it DOES have an effect. Movies like Randy’s is a form of marketing, and don’t think a Creationist youth with just a slight sense of curiousity won’t go to it if the movie itself has been marketed well. And again, if it doesn’t alter the point of view, it will at least get him/her THINKING. I will guarantee you that formerly strong supporters of President Bush and his ideas on how to fight against terrorism started THINKING and changed their minds after seeing Farenheit 9/11.

    Finally, I will say to all of you (except PZ, Richard Dawkins and few others) try to be more like good old Charles Darwin. When I first read Carl’s review of the movie “Flock of Dodo’s”, I made a comment that is really relevant here. Please read it and think about it. You can read it here: http://evolutionarymiddleman.blogspot.com/2006/02/darwin-and-creationists.html

  39. Jason F

    I’ve been a participant in these debates, in one way or another, for what seems like forever now, and I’ve come to one unmistakable conclusion that I think a lot of folks on the science side miss completely. This entire issue boils down to one thing, and one thing only: To a lot of the American public, evolution is absolutely unacceptable, no matter what evidence supports it or how it’s presented. Evolution carries the necessary consequence that they are related to chimpanzees, and that Genesis cannot be read literally.

    IOW, what we’re trying to communicate to them is something many of them will NEVER accept, under any circumstances. You can have the best evidence packaged in the most modern, slick, and attractive way, but as long as it’s “evolution”, to many people none of that will matter. Before your evidence and/or communication style can make any difference whatsoever, your audience has to be open to what you’re saying.

    That’s why ID is so successful, and why despite the series of damning court rulings, literal Biblical creationism is still so popular among the general public. ID creationists have a HUGE advantage over us…they’re telling people what they want to hear. And as long as that’s the case, no amount of modern media glitz will make one whit of a difference.

    I’ve personally seen countless cases where a creationist was presented air-tight arguments and evidence, in the most polite and understandable way, and it didn’t do a damn bit of good. Why not? Because creationists don’t come to creationism because they’ve thoroughly examined the evidence and found it to support Biblical creationism….and it’s unlikely they came to their views simply because of some slick DI presentation. More likely, they were already creationists BEFORE any of that.

    Remember that old caricature phraseology, “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it”? Well, for a lot of people, that’s pretty accurate. And thinking that all we scientists have to do is modernize our communications and we’ll suddenly have the public on our side is beyond naïve.

    This is about religious beliefs…it always has been, and it always will be. Miss that, and you’ve missed precisely what this whole thing is all about. So with all due respect Randy, I think while some of your advice may make a small bit of difference, it won’t have much of an effect on the overall picture.

  40. Remember gradualism? It works this way.

    Work to make sure that evolution is taught in a clear, concise, respectful, and engaging way in every venue. That’s it.

    At first nothing seems to happen. But every solid example, every funny but true story, every lucid thought-picture goes in and registers.

    Repitition works. Repitition works. Repitition works.

    Plant the seed of skepticism. Then nurture it.

  41. murffy

    Great discussion. I’ve had a few experiences that suggest openings into the Christian mindset.

    One occurred while watching the movie, “Master & Commander,” during the scene when the ship approaches the Galapagos Islands. I was sitting in a maga-theatre in conservative suburbia (Plymouth, MN) and a kind of awed hush fell over the audience (I’m pretty sure I wasn’t imagining things). My thought is that the Galapogos are symbolic of the discovery of what kind of creatures we really are, that we aren’t distinct from nature. People may resent and resist this notion but it runs deep and, I believe, touches something we know in our bones to be true.

    Another experience came when driving with my brother, who is an evangelical Christian. From the radio, the question came up of who was the most influential scientist ever. I immediately started mulling people like Galileo, Newton and Einstein. But my brother said, “Wouldn’t it be Darwin?” Yes, yes it would be Darwin. The experience showed that evolution is pretty up front in my brother’s thinking even though he openly denies its truthfulness. He can’t help but think of Darwin as a great man.

    Thirdly, a few years ago my niece, raised in the good evangelical Christian way, declared with conviction that Darwin had converted to Christianity on his death bed (clearly a silly, unsupportable idea). Again, this suggests the prominence of Darwin in the modern Christian imagination. They seem to yearn to believe that the “great man” had come over to their view.

    I don’t know what all this suggests in terms of how to broadcast the message of evolutionary theory, but it does suggest the idea is strongly implanted in people’s minds and that maybe some careful nudging can turn the perceptioin from negative to positive.

  42. Dan S.

    I’m still stuck on the bit about USC kids hatin’ on Gould. Verbose, yes, but – arrogant? elitist? condescending? Where are they getting this from?! What essays did Olson assign?


  43. SMgr

    Dave Rintoul wrote:
    > The reality is that in almost every case, such questioning (e.g. “Show me some transitional fossils”) just does not come from a deep-seated curiosity about the details of evolution, paleontology, etc. There is a deeper source.

    Certainly there is a deeper source and they won’t have curiousity initially. This where marketing techniques (but not marketing per-se) may be important to consider. One needs to give them reason to believe that scientists might actually be telling the truth. One needs to give them doubt that what they have been told is accurate. How does one do that when they do not trust scientific authority? How does one improve trust in scientific authority?

    The PBS movie was good and it has its place as do many excellent books by Carl and others, but they fall short of what I am looking for.
    Let me see if I can give a more concrete simple example of what I think would be useful:

    Let’s say I get challenged with the “show me an intermediate fossil” gambit by someone in my family. So I send them information from talkorigins about Archaeopteryx and the best images of the best fossil I can find. I get a response pointing me to the ICR’s page on Archaeopteryx by Gish. Now its their factoids against mine. My authority against their authority.

    I respond to points on Gish’s writeup (from what basics I know) to show how he distracts from the majority of reptilian specific features to focus only on the feathers, conflates ancestry and transitional form, etc. As you can expect, my points go nowhere and they probably didn’t even read what I sent them in detail anyway. We are both quickly getting out of our depth. Both sides are relying on trust of their respective authorities and neither side trusts the other’s authorities. I can give them a list of the reptilian vs. avian features from talkorigins, but that has no weight with them because it could be made up. Its just text somebody wrote. A big complex book on the subject is not useful at this stage.

    However, this is supposed to be science. I should not have to rely on authority! I should be able to point to the primary evidence!

    In this particular case it is not enough to give them just a photo of Archeaopteryx, because the details that matter require close comparison with say, therapods and modern birds. On the other hand, they need to SEE that comparison for themselves, not merely be TOLD what the results were supposed to be based on the word of some authority they don’t trust.

    In this case, the material that would be most useful would be something like the following. Something that maximizes exposure to primary material and minimizes the intermediate layer of interpretation by authorities on the subject:

    Imagine a large poster “map of archaeopteryx” that is about 75% a large picture of the best image of Archaeopteryx available. The position of key features is then annotated on this large photo for reference on a side bar. The sidebar has a triple-column of smaller closeup photos for each feature in the same orientations to facilitate comparison by the non-technical. One from therapods, one from Archaeopteryx, one from modern birds. There would be a brief description of each feature. One should be able to tell at a glance at the poster what features are reptilian and which ones are avian and which ones are intermediate. Here is the most important point: They should be able to compare the details of each feature closeup for themselves.
    The poster needs to help guide trust in what their own eyes are telling them into doubt about what they have been told, and into more trust of what scientists say about such things.

    – Does such a poster for Archeaopteryx exist?
    – Is such a poster practical? (Are the differences in individual features something that could be organized in a way that would be fairly clear if organized as above?)
    – Who would be in the best position to design and produce such a poster if it doesn’t exist?

    Bring the horse to the water of evidence. You can’t make them drink, but telling them that water exists “over there” by some authority is not enough. In my humble opinion, we need to make such primary evidence widely available because ignoring and twisting that evidence with words is what gives the creationists so much wiggle room to operate.

    Thanks for listening, and I hope I’ve finally gotten my point across clearly. =)

    Amusingly, I see parallels between this “communication gap” and the protestant reformation: the priests should not be allowed to interpret holy reality for us! Let us see revelation directly for ourselves!

    “Martin Luther 2006”

  44. tristero said “But when it comes to creationists the solution is not to be more polite. … The solution is to pile on the vitriol and ridicule and laugh them back into the margins of American politics, where they belong.”

    In other words, you plan to defeat Christians using persecution and malice. The historical data suggest that those methods will be minimally successful, and in fact stand a high chance of achieving negative success.

    Moreover, if you somehow manage to carry out your plan, you will necessarily have had to create a culture where vitriol and ridicule are the primary tools of change. You will find it rather hard to let go of that tiger’s tail.

  45. Hello, again. I’ve been watching this discussion with fascination. I’m tempted to address some of the issues being raised, but I’m also a little afraid of coming out with great pronouncements. The fact is, we still don’t have any evidence that I know what I’m talking about. Maybe in six months, if the film is well received, I’ll be in a position to speak with a little bit of authority, but definitely not now (I love renting the DVD of a movie that got disastrous reviews, then listening to the commentary as the director says, “the reason this scene works so beautifully is …” when in fact the audience hated everything about the movie). In the end, it’s the audience that decides whether you have anything worth listening to.

    For now, all I have is 15 years of science and 15 years of filmmaking. I do think it makes for a unique perspective. When I entered USC film school at age 38 I assumed my class would be full of people with great life stories to tell (comparable to the stories I had from my years in the Caribbean and Australia studying coral reefs) looking to master this powerful medium to reach large audiences. But instead what I got was a class of mostly terrified 22 year olds who realized they were about to be given the instructions on how to fire this gigantic cannon called film, but they had no idea of which direction to fire. Lots of scared students in film school. Lots of them.

    So it took me a while to get a handle on it and figure out a worthwhile direction. And now this film is the net result of all those 30 years. It’s too early to tell whether I chose a productive direction (though this discussion seems to suggest that I did) and whether I hit an interesting mark. I could very well turn out to be the ultimate dodo (along with my mother). So we’ll see how the film plays, and if the first five screenings are any indication, it’s going to be a fascinating year. We’ve got a string of advance screenings lined up (keep an eye on the website for the schedule) and are starting to hear from potential distributors. I have a feeling the film will be available on DVD in the fall, but we’ll just have to keep you posted on that. And thanks for the great discussion.

    (p.s. – sorry about the SJG comments above. in the film I give him a purely positive 30 second tribute that comes straight from my heart since for me, too, he was my hero in graduate school. but at the poker game filming I asked for personal testimonials and all I got was bad things. he alienated a lot of folks. so I stand by what I said above — his voice is for the erudite, not the masses. and in a lengthy discussion with him in August of 1989 he told me this, verbatim. we need to all be aware of this in teaching — great writer, but for limited audiences)

  46. normdoering

    PZ Myers wrote:
    “…you could argue that scientists are so bad at everything that even a crippled, pathetic failure like the DI can beat us …”

    Why argue at all? We’re scientists and what works best or not is a testable and falsifiable proposition. That means spending money, getting sample audiences, survey their views and beliefs before and after exposure to either a film, debate or whatever.

    It may turn out that what you think is effective has an opposite effect from what you thought.

    If we’re for science – lets learn to use that science. Hollywood does — they test movies on sample audiences before releasing them.

    We can test Randy Olson vs. PZ Myers theories too.

  47. “In other words, you plan to defeat Christians using persecution and malice.”

    Nope, but the anti-evolution conmen certainly like to spin it that way. There are Christians on both sides, despite what the liars want everyone to think.

    The vitriol and ridicule is aimed at the conmen. As history shows, it is a very effective way of dealing with them.

  48. normdoering

    I said:
    “We can test Randy Olson vs. PZ Myers theories too.”

    Wait – Randy Olson and PZ Myers don’t exactly have any theories yet. So, let’s take what seems to be a couple key disagreements:

    1) How condescending should we be? First, define your terms. It seems to me Judge Jones ruling might be said to use condescending remarks — calls ID an obvious sham and such … Being too open to critics can set you back too.

    We can measure how much insults work in debates by using before and after surveys of an audience after seeing various scripted video debates.

    2) How much depth and detail can an audience handle before it turns off?

    Measure, test an audience for how much they can learn during a film or lecture.

  49. To murffy:

    In regards to your comment (#38) I thought you might find this interesting. It was a comment I made on Carl’s earlier blog, “movie night” when he viewed “Flock of Dodos” and sat in on a panel discussion afterwards –

    The review gave me a bit of an epiphany on why, 150 years later, Creationists still insist on using the names, “Darwin”, “Darwinism”, “Darwinist” in their arguments. I used to just kind of shrug, belwildered, that they would continue to talk about him, as if 150 years of continuing science and discoveries are somehow less important for them to try to counter. I suppose I just assumed that maybe they found it easier to critize the errors in Darwin, and act like it was modern evolutionary theory, than to talk about EVERYTHING SINCE. Now, I’m not so sure.

    Charles Darwin was a scientist, but not as we know science in 2006. He was more of a gentlemen naturalist who, when it came time to publish his findings, did so for a wide audience, not just for fellow scientists. And stylistically, he was gentle, thoughtful, sensitive (to those he KNEW would be upset by his theory) and PERSUASIVE.

    Even though certain aspects of his theory have been since shown to be incorrect, other points improved upon, etc. the FACTS of the basic underlying principles are both undeniable to this day, AND presented in a way that any thoughtful NON-scientist can appreciate and understand. He is STILL the worst nightmare of modern-day Creationist/I.D. PR departments. Even though the science of evolution is only stronger than it was (by far) than back in 1849, the personality of Darwin, combined with the basic theory (decent through modification by Natural Selection) is to this day a much more difficult PR problem (winning the “hearts and minds”) than modern evolutionary theory presented by condescending or elitist educators and scientists.

  50. MT

    When we talk about communication, I think we need to distinguish “public relations” (PR) from talking that experts do to one another. In every sphere there are the campaign speeches and there are the back room deals. What Randy seems to be advocating for scientists implicitly is an “open kitchen” model–like at the restaurants where you watch them cook. Very worthy of considering, I think. But to make sure scientists consider it and do not dismiss it out of hand, I think we need to make clear that the goal isn’t 100% visibility and 100% accessibility to lay folk. Open kitchens don’t do their ordering and accounting in front of the diners. Also it’s something you can do by degrees. You start with a window on the kitchen. Later, to the extent you have a grip on things you move some of the high production-value appliances and operational aspects outside into 360-degree view. I think I can translate Randy’s points about reality TV and sincerity also this way: All of us in this society are thick-skinned and cyncial about PR. It’s not enough to paint cool signs or bouncing brassiers with our names on them. We have to rely on actually being cool ourselves. I think of this truth only partly as something to work on, and much more as something to be aware of. Also I feel glad in my belief that science has the upper hand in the social cache department, and so even now I think Cool is on our side. The main problems I think are a) it has detractors (e.g. Discovery Institute, George W Bush) and b) the process of science isn’t visible enough given its “distractors” (e.g. the beautiful people on TV). Relatedly, I think science has a broad and deep pool of potential contributors to its campaign fund. But it does deserve noting, as Randy did, that money and creativity does need directing towards the campaign, or else we risk losing by default.

  51. jdr

    I’d say the first thing evolutionists need to do is acknowledge there is a debate going on. Admitting a debate exists does not automatically grant merit to the opposition. I haven’t seen it but perhaps Randy’s film is a big step toward coming out of the closet and admitting there is a controversy. So often, the evolutionist community sticks to the “head in the sand” tactic of denying a debate exists. This appears, either arrogant or afraid. Don’t worry about being labeled an “evolutionist” like it puts you in some brainwashed cult.

    After acknowledging the debate and deciding to participate:

    1. Learn the issues. You don’t believe it but many creationists read the evolution literature (Zimmer, Miller, Lewtonin, Levin, etc.). Evolutionists need to read the Creationist literature, scour the answersingeneisis.org and icr.org sites. Any time someone brings up a flat-earth reference or a gill-slit reference it exposes your lack of background.

    2. Be clear on the definition for “Evolution” in the context of the debate. Know what examples really fall into the molecules to man evolution category. Bacterial resistance, pesticide resistance, and extra wings or legs on fruit flies are not examples of molecules to man evolution.

    3. Understand the difference between historical science and operational science. I don’t know that the difference is recognized in mainstream science, but definitions are easily found on answersingenesis.org

    After thorough study of your opposition you’ll know what to rebut. First go to your bookmark manager and delete the Talk Origins link. You’ll get nowhere with the outdated, ridiculously biased and already refuted arguments contained therein.

    Serious attention to the debate will do nothing but foster scientific success. Nothing engages a high school or college classroom like a good debate. It can lead to an interest in science that takes flight outside the classroom. Speaking from my own experience, I know vastly more about evolution since entering the debate myself. I suppose since I’ve become an evolutionary skeptic, you’ll say I don’t know enough.

  52. Jason F


    While your archaeopteryx poster thingy would be a pretty neat resource to have (for any “transitional”), it still misses the point. You’re falling into that trap of thinking, “If only I could show creationists in an easy-to-digest-manner, how transitional fossils really do exist, then maybe they would start to think differently about evolution.”

    But that assumes the creationist position is based in, and values the empirical evidence. But as anyone who has spent much time talking to creationists will tell you, for the most part, that isn’t the case. (I acknowledge that there are exceptions)

    They don’t think transitionals don’t exist because they’ve gone to museums, examined scores of specimens, talked to paleontologists, and found no evidence of transitionals. No, for them, transitionals don’t exist because they CAN’T exist…their theology does not allow for transitional fossils, therefore there are none. Period.

    I’ve had several creationists tell me that I could physically hand them a perfect transitional fossil, and they would STILL say it doesn’t exist. Why? Because (and this is exactly what they’ve told me) the Bible says it doesn’t.

    I’ll say this again: This is a RELIGIOUS issue, not an evidentiary or communications one. For whatever reason, folks on our side keep thinking that everyone else thinks like we do.

    For several years now, we’ve had the internet that allows for the instantaneous dissemination of data and published papers, and for very gifted writers like Carl Zimmer to put all that information into very easy-to-understand language. And guess what? Public opinion on evolution hasn’t budged.

    So if you’re thinking that better marketing will be the panacea that wins people to our side, IMO, you’re setting yourself up for more disappointment.

  53. Then again, 2000 years from now this will all be moot. Somehow, I have the feeling that even after there was a lot of good science to back up the notion that the earth was not flat, there were still millions of folks who didn’t believe it for a second and continued, for centuries, to claim that their biblical version of nature was correct. In retrospect we laugh at “flat earth” proponents. But don’t you suppose that 150 years after the “best and the brightest” were declaring that it wasn’t so, they were still being burned at the stake for saying so?

    We are wringing our hands at the state of knowledge about the subject of evolution in the very early days of it becoming a widely known and accepted way of viewing nature. We want instant gratification. We won’t get it, no matter which wise course of action we follow in trying to educate the people of the planet. That doesn’t mean to stop trying. But it does mean that the most important thing going on in science most definitely is not trying to change minds. The power of analysing life in terms of an evolutionary basis for it will, ultimately, carry the day. But not in our lifetimes. So what?

  54. Roger R

    Allow me to proffer an opinion from the other side of the tracks.

    Mr Olson’s suggestions are good as far as they go. But I think they miss an even more important issue: What are you trying to accomplish?

    That is a little more nuanced than it might appear at first blush. One can have broad and comprehensive goals, that have a snowball’s chance in you know where of succeeding. One can have less ambitious goals, that are more easily accomplished, but involve more compromise. But to decide how to get there, one must know where one is going.

    For example, if folks really think there is a “war on science”, and that this has profound implications for our future and want to avoid such a possibility, it probably doesn’t make sense to intentionally antagonize a significant portion of our society. On the other hand, if the “war on science” rhetoric is just another way of poking one’s opponents with a stick, if that in effect is the end, then criticism of such tactics would itself seem to be counterproductive.

    One needs to know what one is trying to accomplish first.

  55. “Flock Of Dodos”

    Carl Zimmer reviews what looks to be an interesting and important new documentary about the science/philosophy war in the biology…

  56. David B. Benson

    On ‘Darwinism’

    R. Dawkins uses ‘Darwinism’ as the first word on page 196 of “The Selfish Gene”.

  57. re John’s #46

    Good point. While I don’t sign on with great man/woman views of history, I think conservative Christians tend to. They seem to need to connect evolution with a personality and Darwin is the obvious choice. That he was gentle, considerate and generous must be a little irksome. He’d be much easier to hate if he were a vitriolic hothead. The result seems to be that the conservative Christians regard Darwin with a certain reverence, like a difficult test from God they have to contend with.

    My point is that maybe this indicative of an internal struggle creationists are continuously dealing with and that they may be closer to a favorable view of evolution than their outward rhetoric and emotions suggest. The problem, like with my brother, is that they are so invested in their beliefs – their lives revolve heavily around their churches and cloistered communities – that there’s not much of a way out for them.

    The challenge is what road can we offer them where they won’t feel like they are abandoning their families and communities. I’m not sure. But it does make me fairly warm to the tactic of pointing out that religious beliefs and evolution are not necessarily incompatible, i.e., they can have their God and eat evolution too. (I say this even though I think most flavors of God/evolution compatiblism are logically incoherent.)

  58. David B. Benson

    Re #53

    A suggestion elaborated recently in The Panda’s Thumb:

    Teleology 1. The fact or the character of being directed toward an end or shaped by a purpose; — said esp. of natural prosesses, or of nature as a whole. 2. The doctrine of belief that design is apparant, or ends are immanent, in nature; esp. the vitalist doctrine that the processes of life are not exclusively determined by mechanical causes, but are directed to the realization of certain normal wholes or entelechies; — opposed to ‘mechanism’.

    Well, its a 1947 dictionary, but that seems appropriate in a discussion regarding religion and natural selection. A Darwinist (if Dawkins can use this, so can I) proposes natural, i.e. mechanical causes. Certainly these give the appearance of teleological direction. Some religionists insist on telelogical directedness.

    I offer that a scientist can be agnostic on this matter. The scientist proposes mechanical causes as a sufficent explaination but leaves open the teleological matters on two grounds: first, it is not necessary; second, it is not science.

    From the little I understand of the reconciliation of some religionists to natural selection, this seems to be, approximately, the part taken.

    Hope this helps.

  59. I’m hesitant to step back in this discussion further (because we’re so busy right now setting up screenings), but did any of you watch 60 Minutes last night? I think it is relevant to what jdr says above.

    They did a segment about global warming. They had Paul Mayewski of Univ. of Maine (who I think was at UNH when I was there) and Bob Correll (who was definitely at UNH) and they said, in no uncertain terms, that the attack on global warming science has been a good thing. Everyone involved with this evolution issue should take their words to heart. They said it has forced them to work more intensely, do a better job making their case, and improve their communication skills. Whoever masterminded the boycott of the Kansas I.D. hearings by evolutionists last May (which in my opinion, now that the dust has settled, was a public relations mistake), should consider their words. I had a whole interview with Dr. Gerald Graff of Univ. Ill. Chicago that I cut out of my film in which he talked about the laziness of academics and how they are angry that they now have to defend things that in a previous generation were accepted without question. I left it out because I didn’t want to get too carried away with beating on my former colleagues. But this is a major question. Should the authority of scientists be mandated or earned?

    The science establishment needs to be able to speak with complete authority on these big, serious issues. But I am of the opinion that the voice of authority needs to be, in addition to mandated, also earned by skill and sincerity. And a lot of evolutionists are saying this as well. As Dr. Michael Donoghue, Director of the Yale Peabody Museum points out in the film, the intelligent designers have identified some interesting questions, but they are questions that evolution can answer, we just haven’t done a good job of letting the public know this. And one of the questions the film points towards is basically, “What are we going to do a few years from now if there’s an outbreak of bird flu and, before the government can issue it’s statements, there are public relations firms who already have the ear of the public?” I don’t think this is something our society has dealt with in the past. A number of people on our panel discussions have tried to project a “it’s the same old thing,” assessment of the problems. But I just don’t agree. And I don’t think Chris Mooney (author of “The Republican War on Science”) would agree either.

  60. SMgr

    Jason (#49),

    > While your archaeopteryx poster thingy would be a pretty neat resource to have (for any “transitional”), it still misses the point. You’re falling into that trap of thinking, “If only I could show creationists in an easy-to-digest-manner, how transitional fossils really do exist, then maybe they would start to think differently about evolution.”

    First of all, you are talking to an ex-creationist. I went to their schools. I spent years thinking “evolution simply isn’t possible” as I slowly deprogrammed myself. Do you have this kind of inside perspective? Most of my family is creationist and I am fully aware of what the mindset is like. You appear to be missing MY point.

    For one thing, easy access to such information could have cut years off of my “deprogramming”. Why? Because when one when one basically DOES NOT TRUST scientists, secondary sources that rely on trusting the authority of a scientist are worthless to this audience. Carl’s books are excellent, but they are not appropriate for such an audience. I know this from personal experience. There was a time at which I would not have been ready for such material.

    We do ourselves no favors by making this primary information so difficult to find.

    > I’ve personally seen countless cases where a creationist was presented air-tight arguments and evidence, in the most polite and understandable way, and it didn’t do a damn bit of good.

    And in what context was this? Was it a self-selected group of more extreme creationists that came looking for a fight? Sure there is a portion of the creationist population that is like that.. especially as they become older and more set in their ways. Once that happens, I agree with you, very little can be done to change minds. But you appear to be making the mistake of thinking that 1) the population of creationists is monolithic and equally rapid 2) that creationists can all be treated the same regardless of factors like age and their personal interests.

    Better access to primary sources such as I described would be helpful in a number of contexts, but not all:

    – in schools, to innoculate kids against the “there are no transitional fossils” meme. As I’ve stated before, a simple photo of Archeopteryx, for example, is not enough, because the important points are in comparing the details. That must be included so they can understand that.

    – in arguments with creationists before they become fully set in their ways to open up possible doubts which can lead to recovery.

    – to speed recovery during the confusion and searching that occurs in that period after deciding that the fundamentalism may not be for them, but they still do NOT trust scientists.

    My poster “thingy” was nothing more than an example of a caregory of information which is very hard to come by … and SHOULDN’T be.. because it could be useful in SOME situations. There is no magic answer, and unless you consider the status quo to be acceptable, we should be improving communication in whatever ways we can.

    I see access to this kind of information to be a fairly glaring hole in the communications of scientists since most scientific information assumes a basic level of trust that these people do not have.

    From someone who has been there, I wish such information had been available years ago.

  61. caerbannog

    jdr said,
    …I suppose since I’ve become an evolutionary skeptic, you’ll say I don’t know enough.

    Your snide dismissal of the talkorigins.org web-site is prima-facie evidence that you don’t know enough.

  62. Re #54

    Yes, I think the teleology angle is a bone that can be offered to the religiously inclined. As for myself, I’m quite skeptical. I tend to think purpose is a human projection on the world and not a characteristic of the world itself.

    Although Eric Schneider and Dorian Sagan, in their recent book, “Into the Cool: Energy Flow, Thermodynamics and Life,” make a pretty good case for a kind of teleology based on the premise that “nature abhors a gradient.” In a nutshell, they argue that the complex structures we observe in the universe (including life) emerge from nature’s “desire” to reduce energy gradients as efficiently as possible. In the face of persistent energy gradients like the sun’s radiation, and given the right conditions, structures emerge to “use” the energy and increase its flow. Natural selection plays a role in favoring structures that do this more efficiently. An advanced ecosystem such as a rain-forest is quite excellent at it.

    Anyway, the idea that the purpose of life is to hasten the ultimate heat death of the universe probably wouldn’t satisfy everyone.

    Btw, that “Into the Cool” book makes a great case that the 2nd law of thermodynamics, rather than being an obstacle to evolution of life as creationists like to contend, is actually essential to it.

  63. Jason F


    “Do you have this kind of inside perspective? Most of my family is creationist and I am fully aware of what the mindset is like.”

    Actually, I do. Like you, I come from a very strong conservative Christian, and thus very anti-evolutionist background. Because my school district deemed evolution “too controversial” to teach (even in the accelerated sciences program), my initial exposure to evolutionary biology was via the creationist material I was given by the church and family members.

    “You appear to be missing MY point.”

    I apologize for that.

    “For one thing, easy access to such information could have cut years off of my “deprogramming”.”

    I agree that such a thing might make a difference to those creationists who are already of the midset that values empirical evidence over faith, but my experience tells me many creationists don’t fit that mold. As one person once expressed in astonishment after seeing a creationist deny very direct evidence, “They are unwilling to surrender faith to fact.”

    “Because when one when one [sic] basically DOES NOT TRUST scientists, secondary sources that rely on trusting the authority of a scientist are worthless to this audience.”

    Perhaps I truly am missing your point, because I can’t think of anyone else who would craft a presentation device as you’re describing. If creationists don’t trust scientists and they don’t trust secondary sources that rely on scientists, who’s left to make the poster?

    “Carl’s books are excellent, but they are not appropriate for such an audience.”

    Why not? They seem to meet all the criteria the “we need better marketing” camp is advocating. They’re well-written, easy to understand, non-condescending, and convey a good deal of information. And Carl’s Evolution book has some good visual presentations as well.

    “We do ourselves no favors by making this primary information so difficult to find.”

    I’m sorry, but I’m just not following you here. What “primary information” are you talking about? The hard data? If that’s the case, then that won’t work either, because the scientists are the ones who have the data, and as you said, creationists are inherently distrustful of scientists, or even of anyone who relies on scientists.

    “And in what context was this? Was it a self-selected group of more extreme creationists that came looking for a fight?”

    My experiences cover a pretty wide spectrum. From the combative, set-in-stone creationists you describe, to the genuinely curious and potentially reachable.

    “But you appear to be making the mistake of thinking that 1) the population of creationists is monolithic and equally rapid 2) that creationists can all be treated the same regardless of factors like age and their personal interests.”

    Please note that in my last entry, I did acknowledge that there are exceptions to what I was describing.

    “From someone who has been there, I wish such information had been available years ago.”

    I’m not sure what you’re saying isn’t available. There are literally hundreds of thousands of websites, weblogs, popular books, magazines, etc. all devoted to disseminating biological data in easy to understand terms.

    But the key is, a person has to be both interested in looking AND open to what he might find.

    I don’t think enough people acknowledge the personal upheaval that comes with going from creationist to “evolutionist”. For many people, their religious beliefs are the most important aspect of their very being. And oftentimes, creationism is a key component of those beliefs.

    Just look at the story of the creationist Kurt Wise. It’s very, very sad to hear him tell of how he had to choose between his faith and what he knew was proper science.

    Despite what Murrfy said, in many cases accepting evolution as valid does mean a loss of one’s religious culture. Not so much because they withdraw from that culture, but because they become ostracized. I’ve seen it happen myself.

    I really, really wish it were so simple as just hiring a PR firm and changing the way we address the public. But I’m afraid the issue is much deeper and much more personal than that.

    As I said, we’re trying to tell the public things they don’t WANT to believe, and it hits them on a very deeply religious level. I honestly don’t think there’s a socio-political struggle that can be more difficult.

  64. MikeElzinga

    Sagan and Schneider develop a theme that is another variation on teleological-like themes that often appear in physics. It is an interesting theme, almost poetic, but it can also be abused to argue for purpose (by a divine being?) in the same way that the ID/Creationist (IDC) promoters do. Thermodynamics gets a lot of abuse because it sounds esoteric and deep to the unsophisticated ear.

    The idea expressed by Sagan and Schneider is an example of the least-action themes that are common in physics problems, but these don’t necessarily reflect a teleological reason for the way things behave in the universe. Instead, they reflect a somewhat obvious characteristic of the universe, namely that it is stable enough to exist; otherwise we wouldn’t be here discussing it. There are a number of common examples.

    Consider a photon leaving point A in a medium, crossing a boundary into another medium at point B, and arriving at point C in the second medium. This is a Snell’s Law problem in elementary physics. However, to actually find the path it is useful to state that the path the photon follows is the one that makes the travel time a minimum. Notice that this is a teleological-like statement. It then becomes a simple calculus problem of taking a derivative, setting it equal to zero and solving for the location of the boundary crossing that produces the minimum time of travel. Alternatively one can get Snell’s Law from the solution.

    Now the question that arises is, “How did that photon leaving point A know how to aim itself so as to intercept the boundary at the correct location and then proceed on to point C in the least time?” A little thought reveals that it didn’t proceed with any such a purpose. Any photon that left A at a different angle would have crossed the boundary at a different location D and then passed through a different point E in the second medium. The path for this photon would also have been a minimum-time path, but the travel time would be different.

    Another example is a bead chain suspended between two points in a uniform gravitational field. The shape of the curve (a catenary) is the one that minimizes the potential energy of the entire chain. It sounds as though the chain knows to minimize its potential energy. Another is the famous brachistochrone problem in which a ball rolls down a curve (a cycloid) that gives the minimum time of travel.

    Many Christians who have made peace with evolution see this as evidence of “God’s sustaining grace”, the idea that the universe cannot even exist without this aspect of God. Whether or not this is a satisfactory transitional line of thought for folks coming from a fundamentalist background I can’t say. Many fundamentalists are terrified of allowing any such thoughts to enter their minds. For them it is a start on the slippery slope to damnation. It is not an unassailable position for religious thinkers, but it is at least a non-scientific interpretation of what science has shown. But, on further reflection, we see that neither science nor religion gives a definitive answer to the existence of the universe. We are still left with an awesome puzzle that can’t be expressed in words. Maybe this in itself is the source of “Hope” that religious teachers and mystics speak of.

    However, some of the more interesting religions seem to be those that have no words whatsoever. The real problem is that no one really understands or can express what religion is. Most of the historical practices of religion have been men coercing men to do their bidding. Perhaps the whole perspective on religion needs to change before there can be any fruitful dialog.

  65. Jason said; “As I said, we’re trying to tell the public things they don’t WANT to believe, and it hits them on a very deeply religious level. I honestly don’t think there’s a socio-political struggle that can be more difficult”.

    This has been an interesting side discussion between you and Smgr. I tend to agree with you, though I also agree that the more info like Smgr is asking for, the better. I also agree with your comments about the works of writers like Carl. It gets back to what I said in comment #1 of this entire thread.

    Does anyone know the comparative statistics on “belief” in the United States? What I’m wondering is the % of folks who would describe themselves as agreeing with a statement like “I believe that life is exactly as described in the Genesis account”, over the course of the past 100 years. Is there significant movement in the numbers? (100 years ago, 85%, 50 years ago, 70%, today 45%, for instance). If so, then it would lead supporting my notion that scientific knowledge tends to “win out”, although it can take centuries.

  66. “Evolutionists have ‘Physics Envy.’ They tell the public that the science behind evolution is the same science that sent people to the moon and cures diseases. It’s not. The science behind evolution is not empirical, but forensic. Because evolution took place in history, its scientific investigations are after the fact – no testing, no observations, no repeatability, no falsification, nothing at all like physics. …I think this is what the public discerns – that evolution is just a bunch of just-so stories disguised as legitimate science.”
    John Chaikowsky, Geology vs. Physics, Geotimes 50:6, 2005.

  67. I’m feeling Dodoish today…

    The Loom has given a platform to Randy “Flock” Olson where he gives us poor deluded scientists some advice on how to communicate with the public. Although I agree with much of what Olson has to say, and am very much looking forward to “Flock of Dodos…

  68. David B. Benson

    Murffy —

    Thank you for mentioning “Into the Cool”. I’ll read it soon.

  69. Re: anonymous #62. This commenter calls him or herself anonymous, but his or her link takes us to the Institute for Creation REsearch. I have no problem with creationists posting on my blog if they follow the rules I’ve posted. But this comment warrants a little fact-checking. Why is Geotimes, a fine geoscience publication, coming down against evolution, one might wonder. And who is John Chaikowsky? Well, if you look at the magazine’s web site, you’ll see that the citation is not to an editorial or a commentary, but to the letters-to-the-editor page. As for John Chaikowsky, googling gets me nowhere. So all we have here is someone writing a cranky letter to the editor, making lots of claims that have little basis in fact.

  70. I don’t quite have the whole trackback thing down, but I’ve linked to both of The Loom’s Dodo articles in this post:

    Which includes discussion of some more recent science outreach posts.

    Sadly, having posted that this morning, i missed out on including this:

    Which includes some extremely concise and compelling language from George Coyne, who could serve as an excellent model for those who get involved in the evolution/education issues.

  71. anonymous #62

    I wasn’t trying to be sneaky or anything. I thought the quote expressed my sentiment better than I could myself. I simply wanted to cite the quote and not take credit for it myself.

    I also think the quote may be representative of the view of the 54% (or whatever it actually is) that believe creation over evolution. Evolution publications are filled with just-so stories and just-so drawings. It would be truly fascinating and a great step towards credibility if every drawing, like those featured in your recent blog entry, were pictured along side the actual fossil that provided inspiration. The creativity is remarkable.

    If you are truly interested in proselytizing the evolution/naturalism worldview you need to know what the public thinks.

    Many seem to be under the impression that your target audience for conversion is the fundamentalist YEC’s but its not. You’re correct for the most part that they cannot be converted. I guarantee that 50% of the US does not fall into that category its probably less than 10% (probably less than 5). The remainder is left unconvinced about evolution based largely on scientific reasons (whether their knowledge of science is great or small, accurate or faulty). Their faith may come into play but if they don’t believe the first 11 chapters of Genesis then there may be no conflict between their faith and evolution other than the philosophical questions of why God would do it that way.

    This is your target audience. If the science is really there, they can be convinced. But you need to be honest about the scientific accuracy. How often does a new discovery come out that requires a rewrite of the evolutionary timelines and trees. If memory serves, I’ve read at least 2 posts on this blog in the last year with statements to that effect. How can you say Evolution is Science and Science is Truth and then in the next statement that Evolutionary scenarios must be rewritten. The public hears this.

  72. Jim C.

    I’d like to see specific examples of what students find “arrogant”, “elitist”, and “condescending”. I suspect these are just ways to deflect the fact that Gould actually does know more than them and makes them (accurately) feel *relatively* stupid.

    “Cost of this Suggestion (to avoid rising above) to you: $0”

    If you have to abandon Gould, that is a definite cost. And worrying.

  73. Dan S.

    “How can you say Evolution is Science and Science is Truth and then in the next statement that Evolutionary scenarios must be rewritten. ”

    Because of the nature of science and scientific findings. Annoyingly, scientists do not come down from mountaintops bearing God-inscribed tablets with literal trees of life. Scientific illustrators don’t have visions of, say, Pachyaenas appear to them in a burst of Divine/mushroom-induced/etc. inspiration (probably). It’s all about best-guesses, and scientists actually do say that – though not every single time, and, being assumed, tends to drop out of popular accounts. Certainly that is something that could be stressed a bit more.

    ” It would be truly fascinating and a great step towards credibility if every drawing, like those featured in your recent blog entry, were pictured along side the actual fossil that provided inspiration. The creativity is remarkable.”
    What a compliment!* Perhaps you would like to pass this along to someone like Carl Buell. Of course, every drawing is asking a bit much. Perhaps one every now and then, to show the process by which one goes from fossils to drawings – from muscle attachment sites to present-day analogues to pure creativity, as another example of public science transparency . .

    * what was that study about discerning emotion and intent in e-mails, etc. . .? : )

  74. SMgr

    Hi Jason (#59),

    No need for an apology, just having a friendly discussion here. I’m sure we both have our own unique perspective on our travels through creationist space.. sharing that is valuable.

    > ..and they don’t trust secondary sources that rely on scientists, who’s left to make the poster?

    I feel you are interpreting my comments in an all-or-nothing fashion which isn’t required.
    One can’t completely eliminate scientific influence, of course, but the less interpretation one has to dig through (that isn’t trusted), and the more one can see the primary information with one’s own eyes, the more compelling it will be to that fraction of the people who are so inclined to care about that.

    Keep in mind that in many cases we have a limited time to make an impression on such people whether in school, etc. It seems to me our evidence should be as compelling as we can reasonably manage…or we are wasting opportunities.

    > “we need better marketing”

    Note that by this I do not mean “advertising”. I mean getting smarter about tailoring the scientific information we generate to specific audiences based on what would be most effective for that audience. That can mean using the tools of marketing. That means getting inside the thinking process of that audience and generating material tailored to respond to that thinking process. That may not require a “PR firm”. But it does require being specifically attentive to this audience with that purpose in mind.

    > There are literally hundreds of thousands of websites, weblogs, popular books, magazines, etc. all devoted to disseminating biological data in easy to understand terms.

    The issue I am trying to address here is not understanding. It is trust. How much of the above materials are specifically tailored to address the issue of trust?

    I spent years digging through various evolutionary materials looking for reason to believe that it wasn’t a pile of lies. Invariably, I was disappointed to find second/third-hand, already interpreted information, hand drawings, and a few small pictures of the primary evidence if any. Things have gotten better with the web, but the fraction of primary evidence available in the compelling, understandable, form like I am talking about is still pretty slim from what I can tell.

    Note that this situation plays right into the creationist playbook: “there are no transitionals” “they make things up” etc.
    If it is that difficult to get information about primary sources in an easy to understand form, it is very easy to believe they are right.

    Over time, I managed to find glimmers of primary material here and there, and I was finally satisfied enough that I was able to take the rest of the material at face value.

    I was probably unusually motivated to do so.

    Now, imagine someone who doesn’t have that level of motivation. Are they EVER going to encounter material that would specifically target their doubts..?

    I think there is room for improvement in this area and I have made some specific suggestions of how one could do that. What would you suggest we do to improve communications?

  75. You know how a child is able to drive a parent crazy by following each answer from the parent with, “Why is that?” until the parent, after a dozen answers, finally loses patience and shouts out, “Because it just is!” At times I think creationists have picked up on this same dynamic.

    Half of my brain is still pure scientist from my early years, but the other half has spent the past decade in Hollywood trying to better understand communication. My film, Flock of Dodos (which now appears certain to get a national release based on the number of eager inquiries we’re suddenly getting from big distributors, probably partly cued by Carl’s nice review of last week’s screening), is written mostly by that more recent side of my brain. But make no mistake, the science side is still there, and when I read some of the comments of creationists it rears up and wants to come out with statements worse than Tom Givnish in my film (the guy in the trailer who says we need to call these people idiots).

    But I feel like a major part of the communications solution rests in the ideas of “common sense.” This is the sort of logic creationists have used to attack evolution. There are some small samples of it in my film, such as Kansas School Board member Kathy Martin who tells me that yes, we can believe George Washington was the first president because people were alive back then to document it, but we have no evidence that lung fish crawled out of the water because nobody was alive to document that in person. And all I’m able to do in the film is reply, “Okey, dokey,” which probably comes off a bit arrogant but I still for the life of me don’t know what to say to that other than, “I guess you got me.” It kind of defies logic.

    But I stated earlier that evolution has so much common sense to it as well, its just a matter of communicating it in those terms. If we see evolution happening in a test tube in the laboratory today, common sense tells us it probably happened that way a billion years ago, too. The average, uneducated person will buy that sort of logic if presented simply, confidently, and in a likable voice. It makes more sense than the idea of “we can only trust what we can see.”

    And this is all I’m trying to say with the film. Common sense is on the side of evolutionists if they can figure out how to take advantage of it. But rising above the opposition sort of negates the power of common sense and confuses the whole communication process unnecessarily. Its all about figuring out how to come down to this level of common sense, not by “dumbing down” as some people in these discussions have worried about, but by the simple, clean, patient use of communication skills. There are people who naturally know how to do this, and they are not always the same people who are best at arguing the case for evolution among experts.

  76. Kathy Martin’s explication of one of the standard canards disputing evolutionary theory, “yes, we can believe George Washington was the first president because people were alive back then to document it, but we have no evidence that lung fish crawled out of the water because nobody was alive to document that in person” can easily be used in a “common sense” counter-argument. Do you believe in special creation? Was anyone around to observe Genesis? Who documented that era “in person”? Isn’t this a double standard?

    The point is that every time a creationist/IDer picks at evolutionary theory as if they understood the science and were basing their views on scientific information or logic, it is highly likely that the same criticism can be leveled against their explanation. You may not convince them of the rightness of your position, but at least you can show them that they are not using the same criteria to assess both sides of their false dichotomy. They call this “teaching the controversy”

  77. Dan S.

    “If you have to abandon Gould, that is a definite cost. And worrying.”

    After all, without Gould, how can we have morality?!

    Sorry. Couldn’t resist.

    ‘ Kathy Martin who tells me that yes, we can believe George Washington was the first president because people were alive back then to document it, but we have no evidence that lung fish crawled out of the water because nobody was alive to document that in person. ”

    CSI. Law and Order(s). Crossing Jordan. Etc.

    Although it seems to me – the point Jason’s been making – for some % of folks (I assume) it’s not a matter of taking silly ideas & poor logic and ending up in a wrong conclusion – something we could help out by communication, clear logic, good examples. It’s that they’re starting out with specific conclusions/inclinations/actions and using whatever works well enough to support it. We’re dealing with both science and cultural politics. What % of folks in fact fall into the above group, within the wider oppose/doubtful about evolution bunch – that’s an important question.

    But definitely – clear, respectful communication. Talk for the people who will listen.

    “I’d like to see specific examples of what students find “arrogant”, “elitist”, and “condescending”. I suspect these are just ways to deflect the fact that Gould actually does know more than them and makes them (accurately) feel *relatively* stupid.”

    I admit, the first image that sprung to mind was the stereotypical spoiled spoonfed college student, deeply resentful of anything that makes them work, requires them to question assumptions, isn’t simply handed to them with a pat on the head, doesn’t trumphet the joy of happy idiocy – but that seems unlikely. It’s just so far from my experience that I have to shake my head and go “wha’ . .. ?” – which might tell you something right there, I dunno . . .

  78. jdr

    “How can you say Evolution is Science and Science is Truth and then in the next statement that Evolutionary scenarios must be rewritten. “

    Because of the nature of science and scientific findings. … It’s all about best-guesses, and scientists actually do say that

    This illustrates my point (comment 48) about historical science and operational science.

    How many astronauts would get blown up if “true” science were about best guesses? What if physics and chemistry had to be rewritten every few months? The term “best guesses” is more accurately described as an interpretation based on a presumed worldview? There really should be a different term for a science composed of repeatable testable observations that make accurate and useful predictions. And a “science” based heavily on assumptions, composed of consistently incorrect and revised “best guesses.”

    We need to concisely and convincingly present evidence for evolution to them and make them interested in learning more. We haven’t had them since they were 8-13 to indoctrinate so they likely won’t leave having changed their mind — but — if their interest is peaked they will learn more and we can make sure that good, attractive info is out there for them that is easily accessible (free of our jargon).

    You certainly have them from when they are 13-23 to “indoctrinate” and that is exactly the right word. Evolutionist lobbyists work very hard to keep any mention of doubt out of the public schools, and even private schools indirectly, by pressuring universities not to accept students having received an education that includes creation. This ensures the youth can be indoctrinated and stripped of the opportunity to think for themselves. This also makes students lose interest in science.

    Even as poorly as it is covered based on your powerpoint slides, I’d bet you receive nearly full attendance during your lectures on ID/creation…and its probably not even on the test. That would/should be a clue that the debate is good for science. Look at the buzz this movie is creating. The fact that Carl’s blog gets about 10x as many hits when this issue is being debated should testify that the debate fosters an interest in science from both sides. It would be really interesting to see you host a serious debate in place of your lecture. Invite a representative from one of the major creation ministries and take him head-on.

  79. jdr

    Board member Kathy Martin who tells me that yes, we can believe George Washington was the first president because people were alive back then to document it, but we have no evidence that lung fish crawled out of the water because nobody was alive to document that in person. And all I’m able to do in the film is reply, “Okey, dokey,” which probably comes off a bit arrogant but I still for the life of me don’t know what to say to that other than, “I guess you got me.” It kind of defies logic.

    Statements like these and others from Randy, lead me to believe that the creationist/IDers will certainly be the ones portrayed as the dodo’s in this film. I expect that evolutionary biologists will be portrayed as really smart guys with no ability to communicate. Is there any extensive airtime granted to any credible representatives of the creationist view? (I know “what credible reps?”) But from the creationist perspective there certainly are credible scientists, scientists with PHD’s in pertinent fields from secular universities. These are the spokepersons we would choose to represent us, yet they are rarely the ones quoted by the media.

  80. Jason F

    Smgr, Randy, and anyone else reading this,

    I think I need to clarify what I’ve been trying to say. I fully agree that we should do whatever we can to improve the way we communicate ideas and data to the public. I agree with Smgr that it would be great to have the sorts of easily-digestable resources reflecting the primary data he’s been talking about.

    My point is that we should be careful and not fool ourselves into thinking that such changes will dramatically shift public opinion on evolution. I still maintain that there are a number of folks for whom creationism is so deeply entwined into their personal theology, acknowledging even the possibility that evolution is valid is simply unthinkable.

    To sort of test my views, I started a thread in a forum, where I asked creationists: If the physical evidence were to indicate that biological evidence were true, would you accept it?

    So far, despite the number of creationists active in the group, the responses have been relatively limited. I’ve done this before and as this time, most creationists chose not to answer the question. That alone says a lot to me.

    The responses I did receive from creationists were varied. The first couple didn’t address the question at all. One said he couldn’t accept evolution until scientists fully explained the big bang, origin of life, and everything else into a single theory. I asked for clarification, but did not receive any.

    Another said they would accept evolution if examples of “trans-species evolution” were observed. I’ve seen this before, and typically the person associates “species” with larger taxa, like elephants, “dogs”, or “cats”. So when you show them examples of speciation in fruit flies, they say, “It’s still a fruit fly. It didn’t turn into a dragonfly or something like that.”

    The last one I’ll describe is the one that intruiges me the most. She answered that yes, if the evidence were there, she would definitely accept “macroevolution”, but then boldly claimed that it’s not there and there is only “so-called evidence that is really assumptions by so-called scientists, who are so eager to believe that God doesn’t exist, they insist macroevolution be taught as fact.” She also pointed out that what I consider evidence, might not be evidence to her.

    I’ve had numerous conversations with this person in the past, and I can say from experience, she does not consider anything from non-creationists sources to be trustworthy. Once, she brought up the “no transitional fossils” mantra, and I responded by taking the time to define “transitional” and point out a couple of specimens.

    How did she repsond? At first, she ignored it, but after I brought it to her attention several times, she eventually responded that I was posting false information that came from “so-called scientists” who were “biased”. I asked her what was false, and she responded by really lashing out and essentially calling me a liar. She then dissappeared for a bit, went to another group and started making the same claim all over again.

    It’s been my experience that unfortunately, that’s fairly typical. The person knows the proper response is to say yes, if the evidence is there of course I’ll accept it. But when it comes time to put that into practice, something entirely different happens.

    To sum up this lengthy post, I’d say that for folks like that, no amount of improved communication is going to sway them away from their deeply-held relgious beliefs and over to our side. Perhaps I’m wrong and such people are the minority of creationists, but in my experience, that just isn’t the case.

    And I’ll restate: That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do what we can to improve our communications. But let’s make sure we don’t expect grand, sweeping changes in public opinion to result. And honestly, I would be reluctant to pull scarce resources away from the science and put it towards “marketing”. Every research program I’ve ever been associated with has a single common theme: WE NEED MORE MONEY!!!

    Thanks everyone.

  81. DStopak

    Is the problem poor science education or poor religious instruction? At least part of the problem with the creationist view is a lack of critical reading of the Bible. This is difficult for the science community to address. But since the creationists attempt to challenge evolution with phony science, maybe an honest discussion of religion by scientists is necessary.

    The Catholic Church has recognized that a literal reading of the creation stories is not credible in the context of contemporary knowledge. Jewish traditions from earliest times read the stories with various interpretations because the stories don’t make sense read literally. Both these groups read their bible carefully and critically and so find allegorical interpretations reasonable without detracting from their religious belief. The tradition of separation of church and state, the banishment of religion and bible study from our schools has perhaps had the unintended consequence of poor Bible literacy.

    When read literally, the creation story is internally inconsistent, contradictory and makes no sense from the view of basic everyday science, notwithstanding any question about evolution. Still while retaining an analytical approach, the religious mind can read the story to find inspiration deeper than any literal reading.

    1) On the first day God creates light. On the second He divides the waters and heavens. On the third day, He creates dry land and vegetation. He doesn’t create the sun, moon or stars until the fourth day.

    It is not disrespectful of any religious belief to point out that in the eyes of those who first wrote down these words light diffused the earth without there necessarily being a particular source which today we recognize as the sun. Religious belief does not demand in the face of contrary evidence that the existence of earth and its vegetation preceded the stars and our own sun.
    (As an interesting sidebar, there is an article on http://www.answersingenesis.org called â€ŔShining light on evolution of photosynthesisâ€� explaining photosynthesis in great detail only to document how it could not be the product of evolution. Not surprisingly, the article does not comment on why or how photosynthesis could be in place or possible before the existence of the sun or where the light was coming from that supported photosynthesis)

    2) After the story of the seven days of creation, a second creation story is then grafted unto it. This second story clearly restarts creation with an alternate version, beginning with the words, â€ŔThese are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, in the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens.â€�
    There is no mention of days of creation and even the name of God is different. It goes on to contradict or ignore just about everything recounted in the first story.

    3) The origin of plants is again illustrative in the second story. The seeds exist pre-made but don’t germinate until a great vapor is blown over the Earth at about at the same time that man is created. So in the course of about 25 lines of text, two totally different origins of plant life are related.

    Here is a thought experiment. Suppose evolution was applied to plants and only plants. To teach that the radiation of flowering plants arose from some obscure species of moss to become the dominant land species they are today, honestly, would that really be bothersome. Would it lead to arguments that the plant vascular system or seeds could only arise through Intelligent Design? I think not. Wylem and phloem, monocots and dicots are equally miraculous in the eyes of biology as any physical attainment of humans. It is the spiritual ramifications of evolutionary theory relating to man’s relation to God that leads to today’s controversies. The science itself is equally obscure for both flowering plants and humans. So what do the two creation stories say about mankind’s origins?

    4) In the second story, man in the masculine is created alone and given a garden for his enjoyment. But he is lonely, so God creates animals. In the face of Man’s continued loneliness, God creates the first woman out of Adam’s rib to be a helpmeet for him. Yet earlier both sexes, man & woman, were created together at the end of the sixth day, only after all the animals were created. In the first story unlike the second, both sexes are created equally in God’s image as the penultimate culmination of God’s work.

    My point is not that the creation story makes no sense. The Bible is full of stories about the same events that contradict one another, often side by side as these are. The interesting question is why. After all, the stories were intentionally placed side by side in the face of their total and obvious contradiction of one another. This is not the appropriate blog to answer this question at any length and there are endless interpretations.

    But maybe the stories give insight into God’s creative process, rather than creation itself. God’s work was finished with mankind at the end of the sixth day, but it was the cessation of work on the seventh that was the final act of creation. The stories are indeed about origins, but not necessarily the origins of life. The culmination of the second story is the banishment from the garden– the origin of sin, sex, and mortality. That second story has not much to say about evolution and not much about snakes either, but it has a lot to say about knowledge.

    It is the tree of knowledge that is at the heart of this debate and unfortunately the difference between religious and scientific knowledge is rarely, if ever addressed. To engender a true dialog, rather than have both sides shouting over one another, at least some scientists will have to be fluent in both.

  82. MikeElzinga

    I tend to agree with Jason that it is not productive trying to convince the hard core fundamentalists of anything. They have successfully inoculated themselves against any information outside a literal reading of their bible.

    As I said in my post #5, the ID/Creationist crowd does not fund any research. Instead, they put all of their money into PR. Their tactics include quote mining, grotesque caricatures of science, and the spreading of misinformation. They can make no legitimate claim to speak for science or for most people of faith, so there is no reason we need to pander to them. They are, at best, scientist wannabes (even the ones with Ph.D.’s) who attempt to gain the appearance of legitimacy by trying to set the tone of the debate. They have not earned the right to do this.

    Our major task is to do the best job we can in communicating what science really is. How science responds to fraud is a good way to highlight how scientific thinking works as well as illustrating how fraud takes place. ID/Creationism has most of the classic characteristics of fraudulent science, closely paralleling perpetual motion machine advocacy, dowsing, crop circles, and a whole host of other junk science that is pushed off on the public every day. Many television programs blur the distinction between science and pseudo-science, and this is an area where scientists can place more emphasis on proper reporting and the use of fraud as a foil for how the scientific process works.

  83. Smgr


    > My point is that we should be careful and not fool ourselves into thinking that such changes will dramatically shift public opinion on evolution.

    I agree completely, and I think I’ve made clear that I don’t expect any magic answer to the problem.

    > To sort of test my views, I started a thread in a forum, where I asked creationists: If the physical evidence were to indicate that biological evidence were true, would you accept it?

    Fantastic! That’s exactly the kind of thing we need to be doing more of. I was talking hypothetically.. and you found an inexpensive way to gather raw data.

    Clearly if the people involved no longer have any “doubt” at all (or that is obscured by a large measure of “fear”), then there isn’t a lot we can do.

    But if you posted on a creationist site, I would expect you have a self-selected higher percentage of such people. Are the ones with no doubt the one’s most likely to respond? You likely didn’t get responders that have doubts but don’t want to post so publically. I suspect there wouldn’t have been as many younger people in this sample. People who have become disenchanted with fundamentalism but havn’t seen any reason to think evolution is true may not even go to such newsgroups.

    My point is not to “pick” on your sample, I think thats great! But that we need to be looking at ALL the above categories of people, and perhaps others that I havn’t thought of, determine what their primary doubts and fears are (and factoring their age level etc.) and be making materials available that address those doubts and fears as appropriate for that group (if there are differences). That is where marketing concepts and tools could be useful.

    Understanding can follow if we can effectively deal with the doubts and fears that block understanding. That won’t be easy, or even possible in many cases, but I think a focus on trying to get them to “understand” is a waste of time until basic emotions like doubt and fear are addressed.

    My $0.02..

    Great conversation. Let’s be thinking about practical ways of continuing this kind of thing.

  84. Re Mike’s #60

    Nice explanation of why reading purpose into scientific findings is tempting but not necessary. One could probably effectively argue that the physical conditions necessary to make the evolution of life possible are highly improbable [invoke God here]. But assuming ours is one of many possible universes, then it was bound to happen somewhere. Kind of like the lottery, somebody wins eventually. Can we conclude the winner was chosen by God?

    >an awesome puzzle that can’t be expressed in words.

    That’s my take. I’m something of a Taoist.

  85. Dan S.

    “This illustrates my point (comment 48) about historical science and operational science.How many astronauts would get blown up if “true” science were about best guesses?
    Hopefully fewer than already have been

    What if physics and chemistry had to be rewritten every few months?
    There were times where they have been. Not having a physics or chem background, I don’t know the amount of change that is going on in any specific areas. Evolutionary theory is not being “rewritten every few months” – new discoveries are being made, etc. causing minor changes. Please give an example of the field being rewritten every few months if you disagree.

    You don’t get the whole science thing, do you?

    ” There really should be a different term for a science composed of repeatable testable observations that make accurate and useful predictions. And a “science” based heavily on assumptions, composed of . . . revised “best guesses.”

    There is. It’s science . . . and science. Because they’re the same thing.

    ” Evolutionist lobbyists work very hard to keep any mention of doubt out of the public schools”
    Yep, evolutionist lobbyists. Probably implicated up with the Abramoff scandal

    “This ensures the youth can be indoctrinated and stripped of the opportunity to think for themselves. This also makes students lose interest in science.”

    You’re serious?

    . . . .too tired for the silliness . . .

  86. Steven Case

    Communication begins as messages inside each of us to which we each bring a lifetime of attitudes, values, experiences and assumptions. Effective communication is related to the internal quality of those the messages and well organized and well supported they are. When we go to share those messages (intrapersonal communication) communication becomes even more complex because you have to consider the listener’s set of assumptions, classifications system and perceptions, as well as your own. How we effectively communicate varies a greatly.

    First of all, I believe good film-making is a form of communication that tells a good story. While story telling and oral traditions can involve learning is quite a bit different from what we think of as formal education. Randy did not make a education film; explaining evolutionary biology and/or intelligent design. After seeing the film I think you would be hard pressed to even make of list of evidence he presents. Instead he 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.

    This is dramatically different from science and/or science education. In formal education, science educators increasingly understand that private knowledge, the true conceptual framework or understanding of an individual, may differ considerably from the public knowledge of science. 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”. The need to relate new knowledge to familiar, and even personal, referents is inherent in meaningful and creative learning. A lot of education research also indicates that new knowledge, if poorly integrated by the learner, may actually be counterproductive. 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 at all levels learn science superficially. This appears to be the approach of many, so-called, education films. The PBS Evolution series is viewed and understood quite a bit differently by evolutionary biologists, students and the general public.

    All of us in higher education walk a fine line between self-confidence and arrogance. The answer to huberous is humility. If you want a look at how you are perceived your might go to http://ratemyprofessors.com

  87. Julia


    “we need to be looking at ALL the above categories of people, and perhaps others that I havn’t thought of, determine what their primary doubts and fears are (and factoring their age level etc.) and be making materials available that address those doubts and fears as appropriate for that group[….] Understanding can follow if we can effectively deal with the doubts and fears that block understanding. That won’t be easy, or even possible in many cases, but I think a focus on trying to get them to “understand” is a waste of time until basic emotions like doubt and fear are addressed.”

    I think this is exactly right. I’m a member of a Southern Baptist church, and a retired English teacher whose only background in biology was a one-semester college botany course in the early sixties. Perhaps that makes me one of “them”: the sort of person who can give a bit of insight into what some of those doubts and fears are:

    1. The fear that high school biology teachers are telling our children and grandchildren that Darwin proved God doesn’t exist.

    2. The fear that “Darwinism” is at its heart a competing religion. We fear “Darwinism” even more more than we fear “evolution.” That’s why Creationist and ID people often say “Darwinism”: they know the word terrifies us.

    3. The fear that by “random,” scientists mean “Godless.”

    4. The fear that if evolution is really the way that our beautiful, amazing world grew, then this proves that God is either weak or distant and uninvolved with us. Many of us sincerely and innocently still think biologists are teaching that “man came from monkeys”; this seems to devalue us and challenge the idea of a soul.

    5. Doubts about whether, in the face of what seems to be the actual teaching of atheism, we shouldn’t perhaps agree to let high school biology teachers discuss God with our students. (Believe me, the average member of the Christian public thinks “God” when “intelligent design” is mentioned, no matter what the Discovery Institute people say in interviews and in court.) These doubts are combined with an innocence that lets us trust that any biology teacher who hints at the existence of an intelligent designer is leading students to an awareness of a God of love and forgiveness and salvation.

    And what do “we” need to hear from scientists, again and again in as many ways as possible?

    1. The fact that evolutionary theory says abosolutely nothing about whether or not God exists and that students in a biology class are no more being taught atheism than students in a math class or a TV repair class or a safe driving course are being taught atheism. None of these other classes mention God, but that doesn’t mean that children are being taught that math, electronics, and driving laws prove God has no part in those areas of life. We need to hear from Christian biologists who believe that God may well have used evolution as his tool in creation. We need to hear evolution referred to always as “evolutionary theory.” We need to be reminded that “theory” means neither “fact” nor “bright ides,” but an explanation with a huge weight of scientific evidence behind it.

    2. The public needs to hear that evolutionary science today has gone far beyond Darwin, so that Darwin is not being held up to students as a kind of absolute authority whose ideas could be seen to compete with religious authority.

    3. The facts that random mutations are not being taught as the only source of evolutionary changes and that “random” does not preclude the involvement of God. Many religious people, when worried or stressed, let their Bibles fall open where it may, and with closed eyes, touch the page. They then read the verse, hoping for insight from God. From a scientific/mathematical pooint of view, I suppose this is a more or less “random” choice of verses, but we can see that this randomness doesn’t preclude God’s involvement. The person who wins a lottery is chosen by a randomizing process, but we can readily understand that this mathematical and legally required randomness says nothing about whether or not God may be working out some divine purpose in the disposition of the money.

    4. The fact that scientists are not trying to replace our belief about beauty and love with an ugly emptiness and lack of value. We need to hear scientists speak of the beauty, impressiveness, even awesomeness of the process of evolution, so that we can reconcile that process with our view of God as the creator of amazing beauty. We need to hear a thousand times that evolutionary theories do not suggest that “man came from monkeys” but only that human BODIES and monkey BODIES had a common PHYSICAL ancestor. Though I can understand that evolutionists/biologists may not want to speak of religion at all, we need them to tell us specifically, again and again, that they are talking about the development of our physical bodies only and that nothing in that discussion proves or attempts to prove anything against the beliefs about God’s gift to humans of a soul.

    5. The fact that changing laws and educational standards to bring discussion of some “intelligent designer” into the high school biology classroom will absolutely not assure that the students are left with an impression of a loving Godly Father. The average Christian needs to hear again and again that in the Dover case, the ID people admitted their definition of science would allow the teaching of astrology (in other words, magic, that concept so feared and detested by many Christians). We need to have publicized the ID statement, which, I think, said the intelligent designer could be an alien from outer space. There are already those hinting, perhaps humorously, perhaps not, that the concept of an abstract “intelligence” that “designed” virus engines in the same way humans design engines suggests Satan, rather than God, as Creator. Showing us that the ID people have been dishonest might in itself bring an end to that movement’s influence in many churches. But we can’t easily judge whether they are dishonest in their “scientific” statements; we can understand immediately if told in quiet detail about their dishonesty in courts and before Boards of Education. We need to hear that the Discovery people have lied repeatedly first in denying that ID is related to creationism, and now in denying that the new “critically analyze” movement (as in Ohio and now in South Carolina) is part of ID. We also need to hear about the apparent Unification/”Moonie” connection of at least one of the major people behind ID, thus destroying our illusion that ID is a sort of general reference to God not backed by any specific religious group with whom some other group might disagree. We need to be reminded in every way possible of the terrible dangers to our personal religious beliefs of letting any and everybody discuss the supernatural with our children.

    I’m sorry to be so lengthy, but I’m hoping to give this discussion a clearer understanding of just what what “they”/we are really thinking. Yes, we need to hear that the Second Law of Thermdynamics doesn’t really prevent evolution by causing all systems to degrade at all times; just remind us that the embryo grows into an adult and the acorn into an oak, showing that there can be stages of life in which things grow more complex. Yes, keep pointing out, in the simpliest language possible, please, that there are fossils that show transitions between other fossils, and that most life forms have not been recorded in fossils at all. But only after our fears and doubts are dealt with will we be able to understand the significance of those scientific arguments.

    For that understanding, I can’t think of a more powerful tool than a beautiful book of photographs (perhaps with some contributions by a Christian photographer and comments by a Christian scientist, and named something like “God’s Amazing World”) that show clearly some of the primary evidence for evolutionary events.

  88. Dan S.

    Julia –
    very welcome and well-said post.

  89. Why only do things that cost $0 ? This is an important battle here people… fork over some cash. Instead of trying to change our image to fit the public, give money to an organization who will become a PR front for science, and also those who lobby for us in congress. Other organizations do this all the time, why not for science? Billboards, sexy commercials, sponsoring NASCAR… along with all the boring PBS crap.

  90. steve t

    Randy “Flock of Dodos” Olson Speaks:
    “There are now dozens of science writing programs around the country, but no Science Electronic Media programs.”

    Montana State University offers an MFA in Science and Natural History Filmmaking.

    Filmmaking Where Acting Natural Comes With the Turf
    By KIRK JOHNSON (NYT); National Desk
    New York Times, October 17, 2004, Sunday

    Spielbergs of Science

  91. MikeElzinga

    Julia’s list of fears and the assurances she says that “they” want from the scientific community are generated within certain sectarian groups. None of this angst is generated by what scientists are doing in their daily work. Every day we can flip to several religion channels on television and see Darwin and evolution being castigated and condemned as the source of all of the evil in the world, and as the camera pans the audience, we see heads nodding in agreement. Every legislative session we see numerous bills introduced into state and federal legislatures around the country attacking evolution and attempting to get sectarian views sanctioned for science classes. We see it in the letters to the editor, in religious tracts spread around the community, and in complaints to school administrators and teachers. Hardly any community has escaped this onslaught.

    I have spent over 40 years in research and development and teaching. I have had the good fortune to work with people of nearly every nationality, religion, non-religion, ethnic background, and political persuasion. These issues never came up in any of our work or influenced the direction of the research or the motivation for the research. Nor did any of my colleagues ever complain that their religious or moral foundations were being undermined by the science we were doing. My experiences are quite typical.

    What would happen if Julia’s “they” began probing for the reasons the leaders of these religious sects say what they do about science, if they started challenging these leaders to produce the data that “Darwinism” turns people into raging, immoral animals with no purpose in life, if they started asking how these leaders account for all the ills of the world that occurred before Darwin? I predict that they would soon find themselves ostracized and condemned for their questioning.

    Science doesn’t give any one religion justification over any other. The simple fact is that some forms of religion have not matured, and in fact may have regressed. This is not the fault of science, and scientists should not have to educate people under restrictions requiring them to validate the sectarian views of certain groups. It is up to individuals to grow up and start demanding accountability from their religious leaders as well.

    Science has a far more positive message in its methodology and in the insights into our universe that it provides. Science always invites anyone along for the experience and the knowledge. Questioning is never forbidden. Every discovery invites new questions. And the view of the universe is far grander than that produced by the stuffy, air-tight, fear-inducing, paralyzing logic of some of these backwards religious leaders.

    There are times when our uses of science need deep insights from ethical and religious sources, so it would be nice if those sources had been maturing along with everything else.

  92. SMgr

    Julia said:
    > For that understanding, I can’t think of a more powerful tool than a beautiful book of photographs (perhaps with some contributions by a Christian photographer and comments by a Christian scientist, and named something like “God’s Amazing World”) that show clearly some of the primary evidence for evolutionary events.

    Thanks for your detailed insightful post!
    This makes my original muddled ideas much clearer. Yes, something like that would be very appropriate I think.

    Subatomike said:
    > Why only do things that cost $0 ? This is an important battle here people… fork over some cash.

    I agree. Personally I would be willing to put up some $$$ for such an enterprise if it existed. And I’m sure many others would as well. Could an organization like the NCSE http://www.ncseweb.org/ take something of this kind on? Is anyone aware of groups that are already doing things in this vein that may not be widely known that we could support?

  93. Jason F

    I think Mike E. hit it right on the head. Looking through Julia’s list of doubts and fears, I’m struck by the fact that the source of those fears isn’t high school teachers or science journals, but creationist organizations and religious leaders who tell their faithful followers that evolution = atheism and “Darwinism” is an all-out attack on Christianity.

    Additionally, I believe when public school teachers have tried to tell students that Christianity and evolution are compatable and that evolution is not atheism, it’s the FUNDAMENTALIST parents who complain (successfully). They argue that the schools are telling their kids what Christainity is and isn’t.

    I think the biggest progress would be made if more moderate and scientifically astute Christians took the stage, spoke out more often, and policed their own ranks.

    A rebuttal to creationist propaganda will be much more acceptable to the public coming from a minister than from Richard Dawkins.

    THAT’S when you’ll see the public opinion numbers start to shift….when RELIGIOUS LEADERS tell their followers that evolution is ok. We’ve had the data for over 100 years and had some darn good communcation tools for at least the last 10+ years…and public opinion hasn’t budged.

    The anti-evolution public just doesn’t listen to us. They listen to their religious leaders. That’s where our focus needs to be.

  94. I have spent over 40 years in research and development and teaching. I have had the good fortune to work with people of nearly every nationality, religion, non-religion, ethnic background, and political persuasion. These issues never came up in any of our work or influenced the direction of the research or the motivation for the research. Nor did any of my colleagues ever complain that their religious or moral foundations were being undermined by the science we were doing. My experiences are quite typical.

    This comes as no surprise. This discussion is irrelevant to any actual research being performed for actual scientific gain. The question of whether a whale evolved from a dog or a cow has no scientific application to today’s reality. Just as unimportant is the possibility that there was an originally created “kind” that included whales and dolphins, or one that included bison, dairy cows, and oxen.

    The ardent evolutionists will counter: that understanding how we are related, by common ancestor, to mice or pigs helps us in fields such as medicine. We can study the organs and biological systems of our “evolutionary cousins” and gain insights to ourselves. But is evolution a necessary principle to make this reality logical? I have a friend who is an ardent chevrolutionist (Chevy man I just coind the term), but I’d bet a year’s salary that he can fix a Ford just as well. I’d make the same confident wager that he can also tackle a lawnmower or a chainsaw.

    Just like biological systems, their parts work the same because they serve similar functions, they employ the same principles of chemistry and physics. For engines, it is completely unecessary to know if and how they are related. Excluding philosophical and trivial reasons, the same is true for biological sysems.

  95. Doug said, “Just like biological systems, their parts work the same because they serve similar functions, they employ the same principles of chemistry and physics. For engines, it is completely unnecessary to know if and how they are related. Excluding philosophical and trivial reasons, the same is true for biological systems “.

    Do you like engineering Doug? I’d like to refer you to an interesting take on evolution and engineering – http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2006/02/the_salem_hypothesis.php

    Anyway, here’s the thing. I’m not a scientist. From everything I’ve read, I think that it might not be quite as simplistic a proposition as you make it out to be. I suspect that in many fields, the underlying science of evolution may be as important to current work as, say, the fundamental principles of electricity apply to the computer sciences.

    But, let’s say you are completely correct in what you are suggesting. Let’s say that all current research in the medical fields would go on exactly as it has up until now even if there were no theory of common decent. To me, it wouldn’t change what I think about evolution at all. It seems to me, that even as a “stand alone” science, it is fascinating in it’s own right and either correct or incorrect.

    Now, you are free to argue against evolutionary theory. And you can point out any “inconsistency” in theory or “gap” in fossil record or incorrect conclusion. But simple questions do not put the THEORY in question. It’s a great theory. It’s an AWESOME theory. And what you need to do is do an incredible amount of research and come up with discoveries that would set the theory aside. It seems to me like a lot of folks want to ask clever questions that would cause “doubt”. But we are really too far beyond that, for clever questions to have any impact whatsoever. So, if you really want folks to think anything other than the fact of common decent, you need to get into the science of it and do the research that would disprove it.

    Quite frankly, researchers who have a “creationist” bent already realize that there aren’t going to be any scientific evidences that will upset the evolutionary applecart. That’s why no such science has been produced. And, again, even if evolution bears no imprint on all the other sciences, it either IS or IS NOT correct. If it is, then the truth of it alone is good enough reason to continue studying the phenomenon.

  96. Smgr

    Jason, et al.

    It does look like there is some recent movement within the Christian community on this front. For example, the recent “Evolution Sunday” with many religious leaders participating: http://www.christianpost.com/article/education/1104/section/churches.mark.evolution.sunday.on.darwins.birthday.amid.debate/1.htm

  97. theodore price


    I am a neuropharmacologist and work at a major health sceince center in Canada and have worked at several in the US as well. My primary feild is novel small molecules (drugs) for analgesia. I can honestly say that without evolution as a framework for ideas I would be swimming about hopelessly trying to come out without new targets and molecules for the management of chronic pain in humans. My guess is that if I asked 100 of my collegues if evolution is the logical framework they utilize to generate novel ideas for research and development 98 would say yes. Evolution is that important, there is no way around it.

  98. To follow up on Theodore Price’s comments, NSF put together a brochure a couple years ago that provides a sampling of the ways in which understanding the tree of life can benefit medicine, agriculture, etc.: here.

    For more examples of the applications of

  99. SMgr

    Fortunately, the web is improving by the day.

    As an example, I found some resources I hadn’t come across before at the Smithsonian on Hominids which is getting closer to the kind of thing I was talking about.

    This site is probably among the best I’ve seen so far, but the presentation could still be more effective than it is. Most species are on separate pages and therefore awkward to compare. Some links arn’t available yet.

    I did find a page that does a side-by side and details the differences on a few:

    Another site remedies this by reusing both the Smithsonian site content and TalkOrigins hominid sequence, which though small, is side-by-side. This re-combination of the two is closer to what I was looking for than each alone (see about 25% down the below page) since you can essentially zoom in on a closeup of each skull yet still see every skull in context of the others:

    Its that combination of things: large size/detailed photos AND ease of comparing in context that I’ve been looking for. Things ARE improving..

  100. MikeElzinga

    Theodore, Carl, and SMgr;

    Great stuff! The resources are certainly improving.

    Unfortunately, so are the abuses. I followed one of the creationist postings to http://trueorigins.org/ where I sampled some of their arguments. This site claims to offer “intellectually honest responses to claims of evolutionism’s proponents.” It is one of the most grotesque abuses if have seen of the good data posted at reputable sites. One of the items I looked at was the thermodynamic arguments and the attempts of two scientists to take the blogger (blackguard) to task. It is like wrestling with a pig, they both get dirty and the pig loves it.

    There is limited value in confronting these ID/Creationist proponents directly. They bait scientists in order to leverage some respectability, and it usually works against the scientist, because the creationists don’t have to get anything right; they just have to pick a fight and keep it going.

    In a rather ironic sense, it is like fighting the drug war. We have to go after the demand for this stuff as much as trying to cut off the source. Improving the resources such as those Carl and SMgr pointed out is essential, even though the ED/creationists will continue to abuse it.

  101. Doug

    Hi Carl,
    The flyer you linked was interesting but did little as a rebuttal to my point. Moreover it demonstrates a lack of understanding of the creationist pov. If this is the case, you are certainly not alone (and I mean no offense by making the accusation). A quick reading of Origins by Darwin himself shows his clear misunderstanding that God created everything in its current state. No one is arguing that oganisms are genetically static. Domestic animals have been bred to promote desirable qualities since the beginning of civilization. The Bible itself has instances of this. Certainly if “artificial selection” is supported by the Bible there can be no quarrel with “natural selection.”

    The point I was trying to illustrate was that supposed macroevolutionary relationships do little to further “real” science, science that is pertinent to our current reality.

    The examples offered in the flyer you linked can be summarized as follows:
    1. phylogenetic analysis of bacteria identifies new bacteria
    2. phylogenetic analysis of fungi identifies fungi
    3. wild agriculture compared to domesticated agriculture of the same kind (i.e. corn) based on phylogenetic analysis
    4. For purposes of antivenin, snakes are linked to other snakes based on phylogenetic analysis
    5. phylogenetic analysis of alga indentifies new alga
    6. phylogenetic analysis of viruses identifies new virus
    7. instances of aids virus traced to originating carrier (the dentist in this example) through phylogenetic analysis
    8. phylogenetic analysis of virus identifies new virus and its relationship to various mice is mapped. Then phylogenetic analysis of the mice of north america and the virus are used to predict subsequent viruses.

    All of the above are examples of microevolution. They would come as no shock to a creationist. A creationist framework could have been used just as effectively to perform the analysis (or create the computer algorythms that performed the analysis). On this level there is virutally no functional difference between the creationist and evolutionist methodology.

    The single example in the flier that describes macroevolution discusses the “genetic tool kit” and the Hox gene. It basically informs us that these genes, in one form or another, have been identified in a diverse pool of organisms.

    The pertinent paragraph in this section is as follows:

    “Developmental biologists could not fully understand these genetic and developmental changes without the information afforded by the Tree of Life, which provides a comparative framework for deciphering the genomic milieu underlying developmental processes. As knowledge of relationships improves, new insights into how genes and their functional interactions have changed over time will be possible. This, in turn, will lead to greater knowledge about normal and abnormal development, which will contribute to improvements in human health.”

    It makes the broad claim that this will contribute to improvements in human health, however it doesn’t describe any past success or any specific predictions of future success. When it comes down to it I would predict that any improvements to human health gained from studying and understanding the “genetic tool kit” will be easily understood without supposing a superficial evolutionary relationship to the sponge.

  102. Doug

    Hi John
    The Salem Hypothesis was interesting and entertaining. I’d never heard it before. My degree is in computers. I’ve held the title of Software Engineer but its basically just a euphamism for programmer. My dad was a civil engineer so I may have some engineering genes in me. Don’t know that there is anything to the hypothesis though.


    Howdy Theodore Price
    After reading my reply to Carl’s post (because hopefully it better clarifies my point), might you take the time to write up a couple examples of how a macroevolution framework proved indespensible in your research. Not looking for a fight just sincerely interested.


  103. tree

    Science = evolution.

    At least in the popular mind (which determines by whom and how we’re governed).

    What’s at stake in this debate is staggeringly huge, as huge as the very culture in which science has thrived for the last few hundred years. Whether or not evolution can “win the hearts & minds” of the common folk is the litmus test by which science itself (and, it’s parent, the Enlightenment) will be judged worthy or unworthy of survival. This is war, and scientists should devote 99.9% of their resources toward winning this war.

  104. Theodore Price


    I’ll give it a go… One of my primary feilds of research is transient receptor potential channel (TRP) pharmacology. TRP channels are ion channels and are important in the physiology of a number of different processes, including pain sensation. TRP channels are present in worms all the way up to humans and the members of the channel family have remarkable similarities across species. There are also important differences, especially in their pharmacology. Interestingly, many of these differences appear to be related to the evolution of enzymes that metabolize dietary and membrane fats, or lipids. Unfortunately, to perform the requisite genetic alterations in mammals to explore these differences is nearly impossible; however, such genetic manipulations can be easily undertaken in worms and flies and these data can be extrapolated to humans by looking at how these enzymes have evolved from species to species. As we look at the pharmacology of human TRP channels some of the pharmacology has begun to be elucidated by comparing the lipid dependence of these channels in worms and flies and looking at how the lipid metabolizing enzymes differ between those species and humans. Without evolution there is no logic behind these kinds of experiments, experiments that are now proving useful in developing small molecules for the treatment of pain.

    On a more general level, I will again use the example of flies and worms to show how genetic screens are used in pain research. It is much easier to identify genes that are associated with behavior in sensory research in animals with simple nervous systems such as worms and flies. Numerous studies have identified genes that are important for aversive stimuli behavior in these species. When researchers that utilize mice have performed similar screens they come out with many more genes and far less confidence that their identified genes are truly involved in the behavior (in this case pain) of the mouse. Comparing screens between worms and mice or flies and mice is useful in identifying genes with higher confidence because genes that are crucial for adversive behavior should be conserved from species to species. This logic has now started to identify new targets for analgesic development and some of these targets already have full blown programs in nearly all major pharma companies. Again, evolution is the logic behind this type of research.

    If you are interestes in reading more about this type of research I strongly suggest you read: Jordt and Julius “Molecular basis for species-specific sensitivity to “hot” chili peppers” Cell 2002 108(2) 421-30. This is a seminal paper in the feild with a fascinating story to tell.

  105. Doug writes: “It makes the broad claim that this will contribute to improvements in human health, however it doesn’t describe any past success or any specific predictions of future success.”

    Here’s a simple example (one of thousands). Taxol, the chemotherapy drug used for advanced ovarian and brest cancer, was originally isolated from the bark of a rare tree, the Pacific Yew. Once the structure was determined, it was found to be so fiendishly complicated (designed?) that organic chemists were unable to synthesize it, so the sole source would have to be from the bark of that tree. Since it took 6 trees to produce enough taxol for one patient, and since the process of removing the bark kills the tree, it was estimated that the supply of this drug would be exhausted within 10 years.

    This situation provides a n excellent contrast between ID and science. An IDiot would have no hypothesis, except to say that since the designer had put this drug in the bark of that tree, perhaps it could be found in some other place (tree bark, fungus, clam, albatross, or wherever), A long and probably futile fishing expedition would be the only “experiment” to test this hypothesis.

    If one is aware of the facts about common descent, however, the hypothesis would be that a search for similar products or precursors (to be used in a semi-synthesis) should focus on the relatives of the Pacific Yew. Sure enough, chemists soon had a large supply of the precursor for the drug, and it was found in the leaves (not the bark) of the common European Yew. Since trimming the leaves does not kill the tree, and since this tree is commonly planted across the globe, taxol supplies were assured.

    So if you know anyone suffering from advanced ovarian or breast cancer who has been saved by this drug, tell them the score.

    Score: ID = 0; evolutionary theory = 1

  106. Doug

    “This situation provides a n excellent contrast between ID and science. An IDiot would have no hypothesis, except to say that since the designer had put this drug in the bark of that tree, perhaps it could be found in some other place…”

    How is this different from the evolutionist? The evolutionist suggests that since the plant evolved through common descent, perhaps evolution has left the substance in another plant.

    The different worldviews designate the same logical course of action – look at close relatives first. It doesn’t matter what worldview you’re coming from.

    IDiot – remarkably I’ve never seen this one, clever enough that Ill let the durogatory nature slide but I prefer IDer (which I also think is clever phonetically).

  107. Theodore and Dave –

    Great info! Thanks for sharing it. Dave, are you also working in this field, or just follow it closely?

  108. Howdy Theodore,
    Your examples are interesting. When I’m feeling ambitious I may tackle the article you suggested.

    But, I’m not sure I’d agree that an evolutionary worldview is necessary to connect the dots. I would think that worldview would be more of an obstacle to finding the goods. From the evolution worldview you have to consider the human and worm nth cousins billions of times removed as the common ancestor goes back maybe 500 – 600 million years, at least.

    From a true evolutionary perspective, doesn’t it become less and less likely that you’ll find similar genes or functions in organisms separated by such vast evolutionary time? In addition, going back to the pre-Cambrian to find a common ancestor leaves open any creature in the garden, swamp, or zoo as a possible place to search. Truly seeking solutions based on a supposed evolutionary connection (going back over 500 my’s) rather than presently observable similarities really would be a crap shoot.

    It is because they share similar function to humans, that the research performed on the worm or fly is found useful. I suspect that the similarities were discovered by actual research on both, rather than a theorized evolutionary connection.

  109. theodore price


    Thanks for reading and thinking about it.

    2 comments on your most recent post:
    1) Why doesn’t evolution make it more complicated you ask? A simple reason. Genes that are very important for survival have a very strong selection pressure, in other words, they don’t change much. If you can strongly identify a single member of a gene family in a fly and a human that has high homology, chances are its really important for something!! We’re now uncovering these genes for pain research purposes. Many have already been found for learning and memory. Read the amazing story of Eric Kandel’s work on CREB genes from worms to humans for another example.

    2) In regards to your last sentence: Of course it comes from actual research on both species. The theory that ties them together is evolution. There is no other testable theoretical framework to work with. I am aware of no viable alternative that is testable. If a theory is not testable it is useless to the process. I use the theory of evolution daily to generate new ideas. All kinds of crazy things come into my head, and I could follow all those ideas up by testing them experimentally. Thing is I’d be wasting my time 9 times out of 10 (or likely much worse, I’m a real scatterbrain!!). It is by holding those ideas up to the framework that evolution gives us that I am able to widdle out the good ideas from the sounded good, sorry i wasted $100,00 taxpayer dollars ideas.

    I hope you do read the Cell paper. Whether you buy into evolution or not, its one of the most amazing papers I’ve ever read.

  110. Doug writes: “The different worldviews designate the same logical course of action – look at close relatives first. It doesn’t matter what worldview you’re coming from.”

    I have to disagree. If you deny common descent (as IDers do), and presume that everything was created/designed intact, “close relatives” are not all that obvious. Discernment of phylogenetic relationships, or the identification of “close relatives”, depends on modern evolutionary theory.

    And if you are thinking that even Linneaus, prior to Darwin, was able to discern close relatives, think about the fact that in Linnean taxonomy snakes and many of the worms (annelids, helminths, and even tunicates) were all classified together in the class Vermes. In fact, almost all of the classes of organisms recognized by Linneaus have been drastically rearranged based on evolutionary theory. Taxonomy based on superficial similarities is just not very accurate. An IDer would actually have no good ideer about close relatives of any organism; if they were all created at once they are all equally related, aren’t they?

  111. And back to Dave’s earlier point about mirco vs macroevolution – I think it a very intellectually difficult game to play to say you accept one, but not the other. If you concede “micro” (which you absolutely have to. All creationists of any education will readily do so in 2006) then exactly how do you view that admitted microevolution in terms of what could arise from the necessarily enormous numbers of microevolutionary changes that would add up during, say, 10 million years? The only way to fend off the obvious outcome of all those little microevolutionary changes over such a long period of time would be to fall back, again, on a YEC philosophy, which even most educated creationists have had to discard.

    If you concede “a fruitfly to a different species of fruitfly” during your own microscopically short lifetime, then given the proper circumstances over 100,000 years, is it any stretch at all to believe “a species of fruitfly to a different species of flying insect”? and so on over the next 9,900,000 years? My creationists friends tell me evolution is mathematically less probable than creation. I don’t see that at all.

  112. DStopak


    Your comments although thoughtful continually miss the point of how basic research in biology works. First, you rightfully do not discard all the advances made through the current framework of evolutionary biology, but then try to incorporate all those advances into a hypothetical world of Creationist/ID driven biology and ask what would be different. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

    The question you seem to be asking is what would the world of biology look like and would medical advances be equivalent if the ID/Creationist ideology replaced evolution. We have an answer in history from the Stalinist era in the Soviet Union. In this case Darwinian evolution was replaced with Lamarkian evolution. Lysenko with Stalin’s help forced research in this direction because it fit better with Marxist ideology than the tyranny of genetic inheritance. Lamark had a plausible idea, unfortunately for Soviet science it did not reflect the natural world.

    The result of this historical experiment could not be clearer. The quality of Soviet biology and medicine suffered tremendously and fell far behind the West. This is in sharp contrast to engineering, physics, chemistry, etc. where the Soviets continually made advances and did a much better job of keeping up. Perhaps there is more to the Salem hypothesis than you imagine.

    Evolution provides a framework for the scientific mind, where reason and intuition work together to broaden our understanding of how organisms function. Replace that framework with one that is deficient and fails to mirror the natural world and the result will surely end, like Lysenko, in the trash heap of history.

  113. Doug

    The terms micro- and macro-evolution are too vague and subjective to be used accurately in the discussion. Unfortunately they are the terms available.

    Evolutionists tend to define the difference between macro and micro as a small and large evolutionary change. Who determines what might be considered small and large? Very subjective and not very meaningful. By these definitions it is very easy to understand why microevolution plus millions of years would equate to macroevolution.

    From a Creationist perspective, the terms are used to differentiate between the actual kind of change. Macro-evolution refers to the information gaining changes necessary to enable new biological functions and entities. Micro-evolution is simply the reshuffling and elimination of genetic information. If you think of “micro” as subtraction and “macro” as addition it is very simple to understand the argument that even billions of years of micro will not “add” up to macro. They are two distinctly different directions of “evolution.”

    If anyone is actually interested in understanding the difference (from the creationist perspective), you might read the following article on AIG’s website:

  114. Doug

    Howdy Theodore
    I thank you for taking the time to elaborate on you thought process. Of course we will ultimately agree to disagree for now. I still see the evolutionary connection as something that is unnecessarily imposed on the situation. Research is performed, the genes are found to be similar and it is therefore deemed useful to study the worm or fly genes and apply the findings to humans. Upon realizing that the genes are similar one may speculate as to the reason for similarity. At this point it appears to make little difference if one reasons a common evolutionary anscestor or a common desginer.

    Hi Dave
    You said:
    “I have to disagree. If you deny common descent (as IDers do), and presume that everything was created/designed intact, “close relatives” are not all that obvious. Discernment of phylogenetic relationships, or the identification of “close relatives”, depends on modern evolutionary theory.”

    First of all, IDer’s beliefs cover a broad range of ideers. Some are almost full-fledged evolutionists with full belief in common descent. Others are YEC’s, at whom I believe your statements are directed.

    Second, I said that it is a misconception that creationists believe everything is created in tact. From the creationist perspective God created “Kinds” of organisms. A Kind doesn’t directly correlate to any of the modern taxa classifications. At times it may include all of a Family or Genera or be as specific as a Species. The field of creationist research named Baraminology deals with this subject. You can be sure those involved in the research are using phylogenetic analysis in their studies.

    Linneaus and Darwin both based their conclusions on their observations just as scientists do today. The difference is that the ability to observe has changed a lot. In the 1800’s the focus was, of course, on outside similarities. The cell was described quite technically as a “blob of protoplasm.” All of science has come a long way since then. A creationist would not look at a worm and a snake and consider them of the same “kind” any more than an evolutionist would determine them to be in the Family or Genus based on their lack of legs.

  115. Doug,

    As DStopak said, you can’t have your cake and eat it too. Our current understanding of phylogenetic relationships (figuring out close relatives of organisms) is ABSOLUTELY DEPENDENT on evolutionary theory. Period. End of discussion.

    Furthermore you state “A creationist would not look at a worm and a snake and consider them of the same “kind” any more than an evolutionist would determine them to be in the Family or Genus based on their lack of legs.” That is obviously incorrect. Linneaus did exactly that. Linneaus was undoubtedly a creationist. In a preface to one of the later editions of Systema Naturae he wrote:
    that the Earth’s creation is the glory of God, as seen from the works of Nature by Man alone. The study of nature would reveal the Divine Order of God’s creation, and it is the naturalist’s task to construct a “natural classification” that would reveal this Order in the universe. William Dembski couldn’t (hasn’t yet, anyway) said it any better.

    The field of taxonomy evolved rapidly when evolutionary theory gave it a solid framework. Without it, IDers would be stuck back with Linneaus. Anybody doing “creation science” and using modern phylogenetic taxonomy is being intellectually dishonest. You gotta dance with who brung you, and his name is Carolus Linnaeus.

  116. anon

    You can present as many facts as you want in hopes of convincing people, but you’ll lose against mass propaganda. Specifically, techniques made famous by Bernays (Freud’s nephew) called the “engineering of consent.”

    Watch “Century of the Self” (4 part series) on archive.org for a thorough explanation

  117. Theodore Price

    DStopak, Your example of the USSR is fantastic. I used to work with a guy from the USSR, trained in the late 70s early 80s. He was a physicist who switched to molecular biology. He was a brilliant molecular biologist, but somehow managed to be an evolution denier (at least common descent). Funny thing was that he had as clear an idea of how evolution worked on a molecular level as anyone I have ever come across, he only had different terms for everything and obstenantly refused to acknowledge that what he was talking about had anything to do with evolution. It was a surreal situation, to say the least. Add to that constant stories of Soviet revisionist history and it was quite an entertaining few years.


    I insist that you fully understand my point, you just don’t want to admit it. In fact you said as much: “once you realize the genes are related…” without evolution how exactly are you going to do that. Therein lies the point. All the philosophical arguments over is it God, is it evolution, etc., etc., are fine, but some of us actually have to do this science thing for a living and we need testable, reliable theories that generate reasonable testable hypothesis.

    Anyway, as a Texan, thanks for addressing me with Howdy for a few days. Don’t get that much here in Canada, its been nice to at least read :-)

  118. Hiro Protagonist

    It may be worthwhile to take a step back and look at the bigger picture in this debate.

    The statistics I have seen bandied about in this discussion seem to have one thing in common – they all reflect the situation in the US. Worldwide the picture is very different, and I think it may be worthwhile asking why.

    At least in first world countries the US seems to be alone in this headlong rush back to the dark ages, and that includes some countries with similar history to the US. In the non-US first world, the numbers of people who believe this sort of stuff is plummeting precipitously, evolution is uncontroversial and where I live, an elected official making a big noise about their religion tends to be an electoral kiss of death.

    Why is it that the US is diverging so spectacularly from the rest of the world, despite mass communication making US culture commonplace across the world?

    I think you should all think about this issue, because it affects the audience you need to address.

    Thinking about this for myself, I came up with one possible answer [you may think of others]. One aspect of US culture that has not significantly taken hold elsewhere is televangelism. Televangelist are either spreading the poison, or creating fertile ground for it. Where do DI and the other outfits pushing creationism get their money? Follow the money and see who benefits from it.

    When targeting your message, I agree with some earlier posters that hard-core IDers are impervious to logic, evidence, and rational argument. However that does not mean that arguing with them is necessarily futile, even though they will perpetually be strangers to reality. Your audience is the people these parasites are feeding off. By the use of logic, evidence, and reason you can *convince* the audience that these people are wrong, and often [at best] stupid, and [probably] dishonest as well. You cannot *tell* the audience this, as the audience will be alienated [as many people have been saying], but there hopefully will be some with minds open enough to benefit from the reasoned argument. Don’t sweat the fact that you can’t convince the “true believers”, they’re not your target.

  119. Theodore Price


    I read throught the AIG post you linked to. The “information” given by the author is just flat wrong. First of all, on the train analogy. The author completely neglects the fact that DNA sequencing allows us to go back millions of years and quantify how and why species have changed. Take wing development in fruitflies, for example. We have almost a complete picture of how homeobox genes have evolved to control the development and localization of wings in these insects. Off the top of my head I can think of too many other examples to list. We have no need to speculate about how microevolution will eventually lead to macroevolution in future species when we can use DNA sequencing to see how it happened in the past. As DNA sequencing continues to become cheaper and faster we will gain an even clearer picture. When I first started in this business (about ten years ago) it took about five days and was fairly expensive to sequence a plasmid insert of 500 basepairs. Now I take it to the core facility at my university and they run it, along with 385 other samples on a plate and I get the result in hours for about $4. We will be learning so much in the next 10 years that it boggles the imagination.

    As for “loss of genetic information” this is again completely untrue. So untrue, in fact, that I don’t even know where to start. I suggest going to your local library and getting “Molecular Biology of the Cell”: by Alberts et. al., and reading a few of the chapters about DNA, recombination, etc.. Its an undergrad level book and takes you through the whole shebang step by step. its a fantasticly illustrated and written textbook — I used the 2nd edition when I was in undergrad and I now have the 4th edition which I still use nearly daily.

  120. My curiosity was piqued by Doug’s post, mentioning “baraminology” as a field of “creation research” focusing on taxonomy. That just seems incomprehensible to me. So I googled it. After I got over the fact that Google’s software wondered if perhaps I might mean “criminology”, I found some fascinating stuff.

    Baraminology, or the classification of created organisms, uses “scripture claims” as its prime research guideline. So it would appear that these folks are probably all biblical literalists, or YECs. How they deal with the cognitive dissonance between Genesis and science is pretty interesting.

    There is, for example, a Baraminology Study Group (BSG), which holds conferences at various Christian colleges to discuss their research results. Some are very scientific sounding, like a study of Toll-like receptors on earthworm coelomocytes. But the interpretation that “Non-disease fighting functions of Toll may be of interest to creationists since this may represent a remnant of Toll’s function in the pre-Fall environment” gives you a hint that this may not be quite what it seems.

    Another (perhaps of interest in light of Doug’s claim that it is easy to classify organisms based on their appearances) was a study where 67 college students were asked to classify organisms from photographs. This was billed as a test of something known as the cognitum concept, based on the Biblical fact that Adam originally named all the critters. This is stated as “God purposely created organisms in a pattern specifically recognizable to man and created man capable of recognizing that pattern.” Alas, some critters were trickier than others; 3/4 of the students classified the pangolin (a mammal) as a non-mammal, probably a reptile. Bummer…

    All of the above was found in the proceedings of the most recent BSG conference, available on the web at:


    Check it out if you want an educational excursion into another world. And thanks to Doug for the entry ticket; I’m always happy to learn a new word!

  121. Doug

    “(perhaps of interest in light of Doug’s claim that it is easy to classify organisms based on their appearances)”

    This was the opposite of my claim. This was the claim you imposed on creationists in your earlier post. I claimed that when the level of observation was primarily limited to the naked eye, outward physical features would logically be used in grouping organisms. As technology advanced and microscopes became more powerful and gained wider use, the level of observation would advance to the cellular level, the sub-cellular level etc.

    I don’t know why you’re under the impression that the creationists must end their scientific advancement with Linnaeus. By that logic, the theory of evolution must hold fast to everything written by Darwin. If you’ve read Origin of Species or Descent of Man, you can undoubtedly see how ridiculous that would be.


    Howdy Theodore
    I lived in Texas for about 5 years, and I wish I still did. I was partial to the expression, “I wasn’t born a Texan but I got here as fast as I could!” I still use “Howdy” as a greeting in emails and the like. I don’t much use y’all any more but I can vividly remember the first time. A couple friends and I were driving down I35 in the middle of Dallas and without thinking I said “y’all want to get…” and I couldn’t even finish the sentence when I realized what I’d said. I had to pull over and suffer the ridicule that this Yankee had finaslly become a Texan. Of course being from Tucson I didn’t exactly consider myself a Yank. I guess by Texas definition a Yankee is just about anyone not from Texas.

    “All the philosophical arguments over is it God, is it evolution, etc., etc., are fine, but…”
    This is along the lines of the mistaken modern belief that science can include only natural explanations or that science and God are mutually exclusive. I don’t presume to know your theistic persuasion but for myself it is illogical to believe there is a God but that He didn’t do anything. Yet this is the only reasonable conclusion when one attempts to explain the universe in purely naturalistic terms, then insists on extending that interpretation back to the beginning of everything.

    Regarding the discussion, I try never to make claims of greater knowledge or qualifications than I posess. This is merely a hobby for me. Reading about evolution and creation gives me something to do while I’m watching the idiot box. I may actually read more about evolution from evolution authors than I do about creation. I will seek out the book you suggested.

    I have no difficulty interpreting similar DNA sequences and genes as products of God’s design. Before you regard this as the “typical” theistic-scientific “cop-out,” I’ve heard of no possible experiment that would prove that common DNA sequences independently prove the relationship from vastly different organisms. Only when interpreted through evolutionary glasses do they become evidence for evolution. The classic circular argument. It is on this point that we will simply end at stalemate. This interpretation is designated by our respective worldviews.

    It has been a pleasure sharing this debate. It is so rare to go on this long without being personally attacked or insulted. I can imagine it having happened over a Shiner Bock or a Lonestar!

  122. gmm

    Okay- until evolution and its implications whap some people up the side of the head and cost them something- they won’t care. Things need to get personal with people these days before they become relevant. So, when the bird flu comes and people start getting sick, and their pets start dying- apparently a cat has just been confirmed to have died from bird flu- then maybe people will start to understand that respect and appreciation and support for evolutionary biology is necessary in order to keep people healthy and/or alive.

    As for Gould being irrelevant and boring- why do we pander to students when teaching. Are you kidding me? It is boring so they don’t learn it? I work with kids, I have done university, and if it is necessary to further understanding, it certainly doesn’t get punted off the curriculum because it is BORING. I have not yet read all the posts on this subject, but I hope that I will see others say the same thing. If I, a layperson, can understand or even appreciate Gould, then kids taking science courses in University should be able to tolerate him.

    When government funding for research has gone from 25 percent down under Clinton to five percent under Bush and people would rather accept the stupid religious explanation for things because it is easier than science and Gould, and no-one can figure out a way to “sell science” because they can’t even agree it should be packaged, then I dunno??? What can you do????

  123. Dan S.

    “I’ve heard of no possible experiment that would prove that common DNA sequences independently prove the relationship from vastly different organisms.”

    Do you accept paternity testing as a valid technique? Why?

    That classification study is quite interesting. The pangolin is famous for being all weird and transgressive – anthropologist Mary Douglas has a famous bit about it and the Lele . . .

    Hiro! Best swordsman in the Metaverse!

  124. paulm

    This is a very exciting an useful thread, but has grown so big that, as a newcomer to this exciting blog, I just haven’t time to absorb all of it.

    On the SJ Gould controversy I was struck by the fact that Randy found his baseball analogies so helpful. As an English reader, and avid SJG fan of 25 years standing, I always found them the ONLY impenetrable part of his writing! I always felt that his UK publishers should produce parallel editions, substituting explanations of the baseball analogies for the (to my mind) overly didactics explanations of cricket and other aspects of British culture!

  125. Larry


    Are there any plans to have a showing of Flock of Dodos in South Jersey? Are there plans to offer the video for sale for us high school biology teachers that can’t wait to incorporate your movie into our curriculum? You had made a comment to John (Comment 1) that I have to agree with. I am a high school science teacher and see more and more teachers running away from the idea of teaching evolution becuase they don’t want to offend anyone. I, on the other hand, tackle evolution head on with my students. And I think the reason why more and more educators are running from evolution in the classroom goes back to one of your main ideas – educating and communicating with the public. I hate to say this, but I think our colleges and Universities are doing a poor job in preparing teachers to teach and UNDERSTAND the topic of evolution. Most teachers plain and simple just don’t understand the theory of evolution and therefore misteach or don’t teach it fully – they cut corners. I feel I do have a good grasp of evolution and therefore feel prepared to discuss evolution openly with my students, without offending them and their beliefs. I spend a good amount of time both in school and with my youth throughout the church demistifying evolution and bridging the 2 topics. Continue your great work and keep on COMMUNICATING!

    Vineland, NJ


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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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