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Volume 14, Number 5
March 23 - April 5, 2008

science, technology & health

Also in this section:

How scientists and their foes communicate affects creative design vs. evolution debate
Global forum addresses health care worker shortages
Drug-resistant TB is more common

Why don't we have anyone like Carl Sagan anymore?
How scientists and their foes communicate
by Eric Jackson

Film maker Randy Olson came to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) to show some of his documentaries, and on March 25 addressed an impressively large crowd in the Tupper Auditorium before showing his 2006 documentary “Flock of Dodos.” He began his discourse asking “Why don't we have anyone like Carl Sagan anymore?” and then with a series of historical video clips demonstrated how television audiences have changed and with them so have the methods of effective communications.

If we have [someone doing work like Sagan's] today, it's going to be an awful lot like Steve Irwin, God bless his soul,” Olson opined. This generation of younger people was raised on the information overload of the Internet and cable television, and to reach that audience one must be brief, entertaining and a bit obnoxious, he believes.

This was not Olson's first time at STRI. He was here in 1979, mainly working at the Galeta Island Lab, to study reef corals. He carried on along the academic track that most scientists who pass though STRI follow, ending up as a marine biology professor at the University of New Hampshire. But then, after one of life's crises, some soul searching about what he wanted to do and some encouragement from an old friend at STRI, Olson left academia and moved to Hollywood, there to study acting and the cinematic arts. He found that his careful scientific habits were sometimes a hindrance, as popular entertainment is much more directed to the heart, gut and gonads than to the brain.

Flock of Dodos is about science under attack, specifically the teaching of evolution facing another of its periodic challenges, this time by a well-financed campaign for the notion of “intelligent design,” the idea that nature's complexities show the hand of a supernatural designer. Intelligent design has been embraced by George W. Bush and much of the right wing of American politics in general, and the controversy has, according to Olson, revealed the glaring weaknesses of the scientific community.

What's the most important topic in all science?” Olson asks. To him it's communication. “If you don't communicate your science well, others will do it for you.” People unfriendly to science will very intentionally misconstrue science, combining dishonesty, obnoxiousness and fun to gain the upper hand over scientists who come across as condescending, also a bit obnoxious and not at all fun. He cited as examples of this the effective campaign of the German Greens to shut down their country's nuclear power industry by overstating the safety risks; the corporate campaign in the United States to deny the human causes in the global warming phenomenon and thus avoid some costly decisions about energy use; and the bottled water industry's success at convincing Americans of the unsupported notions that the quality of what comes out of their taps is dangerously low and inferior to what one buys in bottles. To STRI he came with two films about the public battles over science in the United States, the previously mentioned Flock of Dodos and a newer work, “Sizzle,” about the battle between scientists who warn of global warming and corporate types who deny that anything is amiss.

We all know that there's a certain conservative element in science,” Olson told the scientists and others in the room. Thinking outside of the box will get one browbeaten and may keep one's offbeat papers from being published in peer reviewed journals, but he said that the situation is not nearly so bad as political conservatives, who yesteryear were lamenting a broadening of the humanities curriculum and are now saying that the science faculties are closed minded, are wont to allege. He warned that these attacks on academia gain traction because the academic world is not very good at communicating with the rest of society.

There are two main types of errors in scientific communications, Olson claimed. First, there are errors of fact, about which scientists are most concerned. Then there are “errors of boredom,” about which he thinks the scientific community ought to be far more worried. As an example of this he compared the Oscar-winning “An Inconvenient Truth,” which had a few minor factual errors, and the earlier, much more accurate “Not Too Hot to Handle,” another film dedicated to the same subject that hardly anyone saw. The latter, like most works by talented experts who are nevertheless “impaired social communicators,” was “overly cerebral” and “overly literal.”

The solution Olson suggests is for scientists to become better storytellers. “The likability factor is so very important,” he added.

Flock of Dodos,” which was shot in two weeks, primarily in Kansas and Pennsylvania where there were controversies over political moves to require the teaching of intelligent design in high school science classes, is much more of a documentary about debating and propaganda techniques than about the science underlying the dispute.

It would be the story about how aloof scientists were defeated by their likable, folksy, well-financed foes --- except that despite all their disadvantages, the pro-science people handed the intelligent design proponents some smashing political setbacks.

It's a movie that's sometimes funny, sometimes obnoxious and, to someone like this reporter who long ago spent a few years sitting around a table with people who, over other issues of that time and place, behaved precisely like the politicians pushing intelligent design, often a chilling reminder of the public relations obstacles that the unscrupulous minions of specific interests will interpose to defeat common sense public policies.

In the course of Flock of Dodos, Olson carefully notes the repeated catch phrases of the intelligent design proponents, and then finds that a room full of some of the most eminent evolutionary biologists couldn't come up with a good catch phrase for the pro-science side. Olson, however, does have his own suggestion for the “re-branding” of evolution. In a smaller discussion after his main talk, he said that people should start talking in terms of “Evolution, the Science of Change.”

Also in this section:

How scientists and their foes communicate affects creative design vs. evolution debate
Global forum addresses health care worker shortages
Drug-resistant TB is more common

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