Tuesday, October 23, 2007

My thoughts on Flock of Dodos

ERV has become one of my new favorite bloggers recently. Today, she put up an interesting post on what she thought of Randy Olson's Flock of Dodos. I saw it back in February but never really said anything about it. For the most part, I agreed with Olson's premise: ID is garbage, but it sells better because its proponents are more charismatic and better speakers and scientists need to pick up their end if they want to have a chance.

But ERV disagrees, saying:
I do not want to have a beer with Bill Dembski. I dont want to have a beer with Michael 'LiLo' Behe. They are not 'nice people'. They are not 'charismatic speakers.' Theyre professional con-artists and pathological jerks. Whats so nice about attacking students? Whats so nice about Behes non-science reply? Theyre jerks.
While I agree with ERV completely on this, I think she misses the point:

We're not part of the typical every day community. She and I are both in the scientific field. When people make scientific claims, we analyze it using the scientific standpoint. The average American doesn't really know jack about how science works.

As such, the general populous judges by other, less critical standards. Quality of presentation is one of them. But Dembski sucks. Behe wasn't bad but some of the "points" he made were so full of gaping holes that anyone should be able to catch them. So I'm with ERV on suspecting that good speaking isn't what ID really has going for it.

Rather, it's nothing but a case of confirmation bias. People want to believe there's a higher power and don't like that pesky evolution (presumably) telling them that they're born from monkeys. Thus, they'll buy whatever nonsense tells them what they want to hear. Throw in the persecution complex and it's ripe for lapping up.

Sadly, while ERV and I wouldn't eat with people as intellectually dishonest as Dembski, Behe, Luskin, or any of those other clowns, we're not John and Jane Six-pack (I don't even like beer). So the point I think Olson is really addressing is that this isn't going to change. We can't educate a nation full of people who are quite happy with their ignorance. Rather, we have to play the ID game too and make our public image better.

The question is whether or not the scientific community wants to play the "lowest common denominator" game, or more importantly, if it can afford not to. After all, the image of stuffy, elitist scientists doesn't do much for our cause.

Which brings me to the second point of ERV's; Flock of Dodos only reinforced that stereotype and in a very dishonest way:
Get a bunch of drunk scientists together and have them talk about Creationists. Thats a great idea *rolleyes* Get a bunch of drunk scientists together and get them to talk about some topic in HIV research-- youll get the same response. Belligerent, yelling over one another, good times.
This is dead on the money for me. Putting a bunch of intoxicated scientists up against slick snake-oil salesmen who have time to practice their talks and plan out what they're going to say? Yeah... there's an honest comparison.

This isn't to say that scientists don't have some sort of ivory tower mentality. Many do (although whether this is a cause or effect isn't well determined imo). However, as ERV pointed out, many scientists are perfectly friendly, and very good at getting their points across: Ken Miller, Phil Plait, etc...

At the end of the semester, all of my students fill out teacher evaluations. They're given space to write in opinions, whether good or bad. Thus far, I've never received a negative comment. Rather, comments have been overwhelmingly positive and quite often amusing (such as "Jon is the shiznit!").

Meanwhile, I've had a number of professors that, even as an interested student, were some of the most horrible people I've had to deal with. Missouri State University's physics department was much worse about this than KU's*, but there's always a few (comparatively) bad apples.

Long story short, scientists aren't the best at mass communication, especially for hostile audiences. So randy is right on that point; There are bad apples. But this doesn't mean that it's fair of Olson to put some of our bad apples against their best oranges.

*Not all of MSU's physics faculty is horrible. Dr. Broerman is a notable exception. How can you not love a chain smoking professor who looks like a cross between Dr. Zoidberg and Einstein?


Forthekids said...

Um...I think a Davescot quote is quite appropriate given the content of this post:

"What’s out of line is that 60% of academic scientists self-identify as non-religious. They like to think they are irreligious because they’re smarter than everyone else. The truth is that they’re more dysfunctional than everyone else and have to live in a sheltered little world where they all think alike, act alike, and pat each other on the back constantly about how very smart they are."

While you and Abbie continue to pat each other on the back, I'll take something for the nausea I experience when I read the endless posts displaying your self inflated egos.

Jon Voisey said...

Your cute little quote is a wonderful example of the pot calling the kettle black. DaveScot points out that the scientific community baselessly stares down their nose at the general populous, but then Dave goes and makes another blanket generalization about how the "truth" is that they're "more dysfunctional than everyone else". Hypocrisy much?

Anonymous said...

Look at how you talk about people you disagree with..."sucks", "pathological", jerks.

Your condescending arrogance in the matter in which you constantly hint at your moral and intellectual superiority is creepy.

You can't even see the extent to which you rely on assumptions that you pass off as fact; you are clearly not nearly as intelligent as you seem to think.

Jon Voisey said...

Boo hoo. I point out the obvious and actually support it. It's pathetic that you have to whine and play the persecution card because you have so little else to go on.

Go troll somewhere else.

Nicole said...

You guys make a very good point about drunk scientists getting loud and sometimes even belligerent over pseudo-science as well as actual science. How many times have we had to say to our colleagues at a bar, "Okay, enough talking shop!" They'll yell about FORTRAN compilers like they about creationists. So if that's all that "Flock of Dodos" shows, then that's pretty unfair. I still need to see it, though!

The majority of scientists are just normal people who like to inject a little more skepticism and rationality into their daily lives. The "ivory tower" days are passing, and I like the be optimistic about the younger generation. In any case, jobs are getting so tight that you *have* to be a good communicator to be considered these days.

Jon Voisey said...

I'm not so certain that the "ivory tower" stereotype really is going to end. Not because scientists keep putting themselves there, but rather, because other people put us there. On hearing that I majored in science, the average response of a person is either awe or incredulity that I would do something so damn hard.

I'm not really sure scientists have ever put ourselves in the tower, but rather, that others just assume that we're so far beyond them, that that's what they think.

I really don't think we live at the top of some intellectual mountain that's impossible for the layperson to climb. Science can't lower itself to the intellectual common denominator or it wouldn't function at all. So my thoughts are that we need to foster better fundamental science education. Help people at least get partway up the hill lest they turn that molehill into a mountain.

At the same time, I think scientists can try to break things down more as I try to do in this blog. Too often, I see science just presented as the conclusion (spiral arms are density waves) without going through the reasoning, even if you have to leave out the math.