A Flock of Dodos

Randy Olson’s movie A Flock of Dodos comes up again and again in the course of arguments about public communication of science, but I had never gotten around to seeing it. I finally put it on the Netflix queue, and ended up watching it last night.

For those who have been living in caves and haven’t seen this blogged a thousand times, A Flock of Dodos is a documentary about the “intelligent design” fight, primarily in Kansas, where Olson is from. Using the school board debate over science standards as a frame, Olson sets out to learn about “intelligent design,” its promoters, and why we’re still fighting over this stuff. He interviews a bunch of prominent “intelligent design” advocates in Kansas and elsewhere, and brings in a number of science advocates to explain why they’re wrong. The whole thing is done in a gently funny manner, with clever graphics and occasional funny animations to break things up.

I don’t really have much of anything original to say about it. It’s a very well-done movie, presenting both sides of the evolution-creation debate in a fairly balanced way. It also does a very good job of presenting the origin of the image problem that science has. While the “intelligent design” advocates say loopy things, they generally come off better than most of the scientists appearing in the film, and that’s a problem.

I do have a few quibbles, of course. Olson slightly skews things by taking a large portion of the pro-science footage from a poker game among friends from his grad school days. They say some fairly obnoxious things about the other side, which tends to make them look bad, but then, the context really matters. Had Olson gotten a bunch of footage from a creationist bridge club, he might’ve found some awful things being said about scientists, too.

Then again, the scenes with the couple who quit the Dover School Board to protest the “intelligent design” case are pretty damning. Asked to read the two-paragraph statement about “intelligent design” required by the Board, they almost immediately drop into a sneering, mocking tone. It’s not very appealing, and I agree with them.

Which is not to say that all the scientists come off horribly. The pro-science political figures interviewed are every bit as smooth and presentable as their creationist counterparts. But the division is clear, and striking– on the whole, the creationists come off as wildly misguided but personally likeable, while the scientists are arrogant and long-winded and unpleasant.

That doesn’t change the fact that the scientists are right and the creationists are insane, but it does go a long way toward explaining why this fight is still going on, after all these years.

Anyway, as I said, it’s a very well-done movie, and I recommend it to anyone with an interest in the war on science, or communicating science to the public.

2 thoughts on “A Flock of Dodos

  1. To be fair, that’s sort of the point of the movie, to show that the scientists are right, but arrogant, and the ID supporters are crazy, but nice. IIRC, he ends the movie by saying that HE, a science supporter would rather spend time with the ID people…

    I’m impressed that you went that entire post without talking about “framing”.

  2. I have a somewhat different reaction to what is I think a central theme in the film… It’s this part: “HE, a science supporter would rather spend time with the ID people…”

    I think that was a bit trumped up for the sake of the movie. I don’t actually believe it for a minute. Here’s why:

    I attended a screening at the Los Angeles Center for Inquiry. Randy Olson was there, and he talked a bit about the filming of the movie. You know that guy he has a beer with in the pub in the movie… well he described shooting this, and this guy was talking his ear off… really rambling and rambling one canard after the other about darwin this and complexity that. I think we all know the type. Someone who chews your ear off and loves the sound of his own voice, holding court about how brilliant he is and what idiots everyone who disagrees with him are.

    And I got a sense, the STRONG sense that this guy wasn’t likable AT ALL, and Randy had to do some serious editing of hours of conversation to make it seem like he was. Plus make it look like he’s just down at the pub sharing a beer (the very SYMBOL of “easy going, just plain folks, and cool to hang out with).

    So FWIW, and Randy may post here and tell my I’m full of shit. Randy was a nice fellow, and a gifted filmmaker who made an informative and entertaining film. But I do believe that the “creationists are fun to hang out with” part of the film was a bit of creative fiction.

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