Tuesday, March 27, 2007

A Flock of Dodos in Copenhagen

Note: Updated with more links to posts by PZ Myers about Haeckel's embryos.

I've just come back from viewing Dr. Randy Olson's A Flock of Dodos at the Night Film Festival in Copenhagen (in this case, the movie was shown in the afternoon, instead of at night).

It was the first screening outside the US, and Dr. Randy Olson was there to debate a ID proponent and answer questions afterwards. More about that later, but first a little about the film.

A Flock of Dodos is about the fight between scientists and the Intelligent Design movement in the US. Olson tries to present both sides of the debate, and while he makes it quite clear that he is no fan of Intelligent Design, he also makes clear that he thinks that the fight is being lost by the scientists - in a large part because of the scientists themselves.

As an introduction to the debate in the US, the movie is not bad at all, though I think Olson bends over a little too much to describe the ID crowd as charming (I personally found several of the specimens in the movie rather repulsive, but that might be due to cultural differences).

Still, I think the movie fails to both shows the problems with the Intelligent Design arguments, and to show what scientists should do better. The first is not the purpose of the movie, but something that frustrates some viewers (at least one viewer in the audience complained about the lack of science in the movie), while the second part should naturally from Olson's finding that scientists is a large part of the problem.

I also found it problematic that Olson didn't talk with any of the scientists actually working with communicating with people about these issues. Eugenie Scott, Ken Miller, PZ Myers etc. are all great at explaining the problems in clear simple ways, yet none such people were interviewed. Instead many of the insights of the scientists' problems came from a round board discussion (while playing poker) of a bunch of NY academics, who are undoubtfully good at their work, but who don't work with explaining these issues to lay people, unlike the ID proponents from the Discovery Institute.

Even with these problems, I still think it's a great movie, and it should certainly be viewed broadly in the US, as a supplement to all the other forms of combating Intelligent Design - I believe in a multi-front battle against the forces of ignorance.

Now, to the debate afterwards. Denmark has one major Intelligent Design proponent, the theologian Jakob Wolf, however he didn't participate in the debate. Instead it was some person I've never heard about, who didn't explain his qualifications for participating in the debate. According to some of the others viewing the film, he was a journalist, and believed in some kind of Hindu-derived religion (Hara Krishna perhaps?).

Anyway, the proponent started out attacking Olson for the movie's inaccuracies, and started with the Discovery Institute's talking points about Haeckel's embryos, and had even printed out examples of where they were used. Olson quickly dismissed this as nonsense, and as someone shouted from the audience (oops, did I do that?), it all depends on context. PZ Myer's will be happy to know that Olson referred to his sound debunkings of the DI's talking point.
In a sense it was interesting to see Olson's offhand dismissal of the ID proponent's arguments, since it was a display of the same kind of behavior that he complained about the scientists did. It's understandable, since Olson gets presented with the same stupid arguments every time, but perhaps it also explains why scientists do the same, when presented with the same abmyssal stupid arguments again and again (2nd law of thermodynamics, anyone?).

Other than that, there was not much worth noticing about the debate, except:

  • A member of the audience, a biology professor I believe, was rather abusive towards the ID person. He yelled something about not knowing any science...

  • The ID proponent referred to Dembski's math as sound evidence (don't cry Mark).

  • A Raelite spoke up, and asked if the debaters had thought of a human designer? (which prompted the whole audience to laugh).

  • The ID proponent said that you could define something as intelligent designed if you can't explain it by chemistry or physics. Both a rather broad statement, and a rather narrow definition of intelligently designed in another.

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