Saturday, May 24, 2008

Randy Olson Has a Divining Rod

A post on Pharyngula brought me to Randy Olson's recent appearance on the skepticality podcast. Olson is a biologist-turned-filmmaker best known for his Flock of Dodos, a documentary that tries to strike a calm balance in the evolution-creationism conflict by noting the many positive personality traits of lying creationists and berating scientists for being smarty-pants elitists who use big words and body gestures that alienate people. He's very much against all the name-calling, finger-pointing, and other forms of negativity that characterize the "debate," such as it is, between scientists and creationists, and he seems peculiarly devoted to the idea that Stephen J. Gould should return from the dead and restore the comity and mutual respect that obtained back when Gould was popularizing evolution. Gould would often sprinkle references to baseball, Shakespeare, opera, Disney, and architecture in his writings about evolutionary science. Oh, those were the halcyon days! Who could have foreseen the conflicts to come?

My sarcasm notwithstanding, I didn't hate Flock of Dodos, nor do I think Randy Olson is an enemy; I think he makes some useful points in the podcast and in the film, and I look forward to his next film, which will be about global warming.

Which brings me to the subject of Randy Olson's divining rod: in the podcast, and less stridently in Flock of Dodos, Olson insists that there are better, more appealing, more compelling ways to promote evolution -- in his terms, to "re-brand" the science of evolution. He has, if you will, a divining rod that is pointing in the direction of this crowd-pleasing brand that will succeed where the existing brand has failed. He knows the water is there, just a little underground, if only someone -- say, someone with filmmaking skills, lots of fundraising talent, plenty of connections in the scientific community, and a solid grasp of the science and the conflicts surrounding it -- would get out their shovels and dig for it.

"Innovate!" he urges; find "new and different ways" to think about it, he nearly yells; "light fires!" he insists, all to no one in particular. These things must be done that evolution might "shake off all these labels" that have been attached to it -- eugenics, crude reductionism, nihilism, immorality and assorted other scare words that nowhere belong in a polite conversation about batting averages and life's meaning.

He quietly sidesteps the possibility that he himself, Randy Olson, should do the digging for the waters to which his divining rod points. I wonder why? I think I know why; what I don't know is why Randy Olson thinks it is his role, and a productive one at that, to complain about the failure of others to dig when he himself is conspicuously not wielding a shovel.

A few other confusions:

+ Was Expelled a success or not, and was the science community's response to it effective or not? At one point, he makes the bizarre claim that critical commentary cannot cross formal boundaries -- that the only adequate response to a snarky documentary like Expelled would be a snarky documentary that promotes evolution. But not long after, he praises the NCSE's web-based resources that rebut the film's many lies and distortions, and then describes how film reviewers have a powerful role in setting the terms in which viewers will receive (or decline) a film. The latter is clearly right: the quantity and nature of film reviews does matter to the fate and reception of a film, even if the commentary comes from a newspaper or -- gasp! -- a blog. As PZ Myers put it:

[W]e had to show that Expelled was a profoundly dishonest movie on all levels; we impeached its credibility successfully. The reviews tell the story, that they all point out how wretchedly false the story of the movie was. We can't stop people from attending the movie, but we can weaken its utility as a tool for the creationist movement.
+ Can Randy Olson honestly not tell the difference between bloggers, commenters to blogs, and evolutionary scientists? One would expect him to have these distinctions firmly in his grasp, given that he is not only an evolutionary scientist but also a blogger on a blog that accepts comments from readers. Yet throughout the podcast, he elides these elementary distinctions in the service of issuing sweeping rebukes at -- well, everyone who's bothering him, but especially the BloggerCommenterEvolutionists who have written disparaging and hurtful things about him, sometimes including swear-words(!!!). I expect an imbalanced, bed-wetting imbecile like Bill O'Reilly to confuse a blog's posts with the blog's comments -- he has pioneered something of a subgenre of whining out of it -- but, really, Randy Olson should aim higher than that. As Olson himself is careful to point out, we are indeed living and communicating in a new media environment, and while much about this Brave New Reality is still in flux, we already know it calls for everyone to hitch up his big-boy diapers.

+ Concerning vitriol: PZ Myers, Richard Dawkins, and every other BloggerCommenterEvolutionist is engaged, like it or not, in a conflict in which the other side has, in Expelled and elsewhere, explicitly linked evolution with the Holocaust. Whatever we might say of such brazen bullshit, we can reliably infer that the rhetorical gloves have been removed. As PZ Myers rather too calmly put it -- please notice the absence of obscenities:
Olson is telling us to be like Jimmy Carter, and ignoring the fact that the environment right now is dominated by the likes of Dick Cheney, unlikable thug. Even worse is that he's forgetting that it was Carter vs. Reagan, who was both likable and put up a good illusion of strength.
There is more to be said on this cluster of topics, but I've already flirted with repeating the points I made the last time I addressed Randy Olson and Flock of Dodos. So here ends the today's entry.

Let us all pray for Stephen J. Gould's glorious return.

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