Randy “Flock of Dodos” Olson Speaks

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Randy 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.

TEN THINGS EVOLUTIONISTS CAN DO TO IMPROVE COMMUNICATION

(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: $)