Tuesday, February 21, 2006

I'm feeling Dodoish today...

The Loom has given a platform to Randy "Flock" Olson where he gives us poor deluded scientists some advice on how to communicate with the public. Although I agree with much of what Olson has to say, and am very much looking forward to "Flock of Dodos" coming to Rice University, I disagree with him on a few points. For example, he opens his list with:
"[S]o much of the mass communication of evolution is so dull and uninspiring. [For example] the 8 part Evolution series by PBS released a few years ago [...]. 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. [...] 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.
Interesting, coming from someone who tells us not to "condescend" and to "lighten up a bit" later on. Just by curiosity, did you actually watch the whole series, or just the last episode? I happen to think that the series is excellent. Some episodes (e.g., the evolution of infectious disease and the sexual selection / evolution of sex ones) are among the best popular science programs I've ever seen. My wife who is a scientist but not an evolutionary biologist (nobody's perfect!) also enjoyed them.

I suppose I just don't buy the argument that we need to aim at the lowest common denominator in order to grab people. That we need to entertain everyone at all times. (Of course, I could be wrong. Newton's Binomium isn't exactly a mass phenomenon.) No matter how flashy you make something some, perhaps most, people will still switch to "Fear Factor" or whatever. I think there's nothing wrong with creating programs aimed at the same public who watch good natural history or technology shows, even if it's only 10% of the total audience. David Attenborough never dumbed anything down, and still got big audiences. I know many biologists who were turned on to the subject by watching his shows. Dawkins' "The Selfish Gene" did the same for me. Steve Gould's prose inspired others still, even if some of Olson's students found it "arrogant, elitist, condescending, verbose". I'd hate to see these voices disappear just because they risk sending someone, somewhere to sleep.

Update: I should add that I largely concur with Olson on his points 3-5 and 7-10.