Screening of Flock of Dodos from May 7

May 19, 2007 at 11:51 pm | Posted in Essays, Good Media | Leave a comment

The screening of Flock of Dodos on the Wichita State campus qualified as much more than an everyday event in Wichita. The capacity of the CAC theater is 450 persons, and the crowd was around 350-400. You could say it was the free admission, a free film with the filmmaker, Dr. Randy Olson, actually in attendance, but getting anyone in Wichita to leave their homes for an evening is about as easy as sorting atoms with eyeballs and fingers. These people were definitely interested.

I spied several WSU faculty scientists in the crowd, several friends from KCFS, and a few friendly fellow students, but I had trouble gaging the overall attitude of the crowd until something silly happened. Before the film was introduced a series of editorial cartoons making fun of the whole mess was shown as a slide show with an acoustic song about this debacle in Kansas playing over it. At the end, this Family Guy clip showed:

It was well received. The crowd applauded and laughed. The cycle restarted and when the same clip showed the same thing happened again. It was a friendly crowd.

The film showed. It was a little too cutesy for my preferences (though I admit that I am a sick man who enjoys reading text books), but it was also well received by the crowd. And while I say it was too cutesy for my preferences, I liked the film overall. Olson took a very gentle approach towards portraying the anti-science characters, such as activists Michael Behe, John Calvert, Bill Harris, and notorious Kansas School Board members such as a winking (and described as “sexy”) Connie Morris and Kathy Martin among others. Olson did a good job with them, trying his best to show them as good people who mean well but are supporting something that, as he put it, hasn’t gotten past the “intuition stage.” He showed that they’re all heart, good but misdirected hearts, and no head.

The film works. Why do I think so? Because as little as I’ve thought of John Calvert, who to me is the poster-child of charlatans who wreck my culture and damage education in my beloved country, I left the film liking him a bit more, seeing him more, and certainly so, as a troubled person than a real life horror film monster.

Flock of Dodos seems to take a lot of shots at scientists, though it features a poker game of 9 evolutionary biologists that is revisited throughout the film. This will serve as a fantastic introduction of scientists as being real people to a majority of the film’s target audience, and charming people at that. Two of the most enduring quotes during these sequences was “I swear on the bones of Charles Darwin,” and “When ODB died, and Wu Tang broke up, that was a sad day for me.”

At the end there was a panel discussion of 4, dominated by the filmmaker, Dr. Randy Olson, and Dr. Niall Shanks – a WSU faculty member, author of God, the Devil, and Darwin, and a noted philosopher of science. The crowd discussion was interesting and productive, with Shanks playing the comic relief by making statements, in his Brittish accent, like, “If God sent AIDS to punish homosexuals, he must love lesbians because HIV is so hard to transmit between women.” Most of the questions were supportive of both the film and the filmmaker, focusing on what we can do to fix this problem. Runners were provided to deliver questions, so I chose that method as to how to deliver mine.

“We’ve already established that scientists do not have P.R. firms, and scientists are so busy that they seem as real as unicorns to most of the public. Richard Dawkins seems more interested in promoting atheism than seeking a public acceptance of science. Bill Nye is today’s Carl Sagan. What is your reaction?”

I don’t think that my implication that Bill Nye is not Carl Sagan was lost on Olson. I have no problems with Bill Nye, he’s just not in the same league as Carl Sagan, not in terms of being a scientist or in mega-coolness/mass public appeal and admiration. I liked most of Olson’s answer. He said that he wishes that there would be a loose collection of high powered scientists that the public knew they could, and so would, listen to. I too wish for that, and wonder why one does not exist today when so many analogous things exist for so many much more meaningless parts of human life.

During the panel discussion Olson said that he fears a world where public relations firms are hired to spin against any scientific information that a particular party considers harmful to its economic outlook, causing mass confusion and an even deeper politicization of science in the public sphere. A body of trusted super-scientists would help clarify in these times of trouble, but a part of Olson’s overall message is that the probability of such a group forming is between unlikely and impossible.

Olson, who became a filmmaker because he thought science films were boring, said many times, both during the film and in the discussion afterwards, that scientists are poor communicators, because they’re too technical and suck at non-technical language, who tell boring stories because they are restricted to the truth, which you need to deviate from at times to tell a good story. It seems he implies many times that scientists are unlikeable to your average Joe as well.

I feel that while I can see where such statements come from, that they are fundamentally untrue. I spend a lot of time trying to drag scientists into public settings. This practice is much more difficult than separating atoms with eyeballs and fingers because scientists generally fear what comes across as a hostile public, are too busy working a ton of hours and usually have families, or see it as a lost cause. When I’m successful though, the scientists I drag to these events generally come across very well with the public, and are met with a long line of people to talk with afterwards, some to argue and some to just chat and say hello, all with a new respect and understanding, and are generally trusted once they demonstrate that they value the truth.

Generally, scientists are not boring, bad communicators, or unlikeable. They are, however, noticeably absent in the public and in public media. Changing that would be a major step towards a remedy of this entire problem. And while I don’t agree with the entire message of the film, or it’s overwhelming cutesy-ness, I think the film will have a noticeable impact in putting science in the public via the media in a friendly and charming manner. That’s why I’m proud to call Dr. Olson my new best friend, even though I’m just stalking him.

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