Posted by PvM on February 18, 2006 12:04 AM

On the Loom, Carl Zimmer provides us with an interview with Randy Olson. As you may remember, Randy is the director of the movie “Flock of Dodos”.

Randy’s comments and suggestions have generated quite some disagreement from PZ Myers on Pharyngula and John Lynch on Stranger Fruit.

Let’s first look at Randy’s suggstions as to how to improve communication, then some of the disagreements and finally I will give my $0.02 on the matter. I also hope that the readers of PandasThumb will contribute to explore these issues as they go to the heart of how the issue how to best teach and educate the layperson about evolutionary theory.

Randy gives some very useful pointers as how to best reach one’s audience. The ten steps include: Quality control, attitude, concision, modernization, prioritization, understanding, risk taking/innovation, humor, Unscripted Media and the Mass Audience and finally sincerity.

John Lynch responded as follows

Randy Olson, following an MFA in filmmaking from USC, has decided that the way to improve evolution education is basically to engage in sort of dumbed-down glossiness that anti-evolutionists specialize in; all surface flash with little real depth. Olson seems to have forgotten that communicating science is difficult and it’s complexity doesn’t yield to simple Hollywoodization. Taking a bunch of acting classes - which he seems to suggest is necessary - wont solve that problem.

My reading of Randy’s suggestions leads me to just the opposite. Randy suggests that while maintaining accuracy and precision are important, it is also important to be concise. The attention span of today’s audiences is quite limited and if the goal is to communicate scientific concepts then one has to take into consideration the audience involved.And what is wrong with adding ‘glossiness’ to one’s presentation?

An excellent example of Randy’s suggestions is found in the video series which can be ordered for free from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Without avoiding complex issues, the various people present compelling and interesting lectures on a variety of topics. And their audience is a demanding one consisting of high school and college students. The presentation is slick, compelling and interesting without sounding condescending and without avoiding going into details.

Communicating an idea or concept involves not only understanding the material you want to discuss, but also understand how to communicate with the audience.

PZ Myers states

PZ Myers wrote:

Maybe it’s my own high dork factor talking, but I’m not too receptive to people telling me I need movie star qualities to be able to support science, or that we have to pander to superficial sensibilities to communicate a message. Our strengths are depth, intelligence, evidence, history, the whole damn natural world, and just plain having the best and most powerful explanation for its existence. Don’t tell us to dumb it down and glitz it up. I think people should be smart enough to understand it, and there’s grandeur enough in it that dressing it up in rhinestones is just silly. We need to know how to communicate real science, not Hollywood

Again the author totally misses the point. Being right is not sufficient, having the most powerful explanation can be totally lost on an audience bored to death. Rather than being superficial, it is essential to understand the sensibilities of one’s audience IF one is interested in effectively communicating a particular message. What a loss if a message which attempts to communicate the most powerful explanation, is fully lost because of flawed delivery and rather than holding your audience responsible for being ‘smart enough’ to understand it, it should be the presenter’s responsibility to appropriately present the materials.

Yes, this means hard work and perhaps the involvement of people who have expertise in presenting data in a manner which effectively communicates the message. It should come as no surprise that in the commercial world, billions of dollars are spent to convey the message. Not just in advertising but also in presentation of new concepts, products or ideas within the company.

As the presenter you are not just responsible for getting the facts straight, that’s the easy part. One is also responsible for organizing the facts in a meaningful sequence and, if needed, provide for additional materials, however ‘shallow’ they may appear, to effectively communicate the concept.

Until people realize that communication involves not just the message and the sender but also the receiver and that for a large variety of reasons a good message can become totally lost to the recipient, scientists in general and evolutionists in particular will have a hard time being heard no matter how loud their voices may be.

Randy Olson’s suggestions, which are excellent in many ways, should not be seen as an indictment of those who are teaching and presenting these materials but as tools to help reach one’s audience more effectively and efficiently. In the older days, the orator was highly skilled in using his knowledge of the facts as well as of his audience to effectively communicate his arguments. In present days, much of the skills of oration have been lost.

CanuckRob on Stranger Fruit captures much of my arguments

eaching certainly is a species of communication but the “public” are a different species of audience. different. Lay persons (not the IDers) that are not your students, that may not have much in the way of science education and who are busy in their own lives (but that do elect people)or those that engage in public life are not going to be reached in the same way that you reach students….

In other words science needs to grow and encourage more popularizers that are qualifed in their field have the approprate skills and desire to particpate in the public arena that way. Fund them through whatever professional organizations you belong to ar start a new one. I think that could work.